Skip to main content

Full text of "The Routledge Companion to The Study of Religion : Hinnells, John, R."

See other formats

The Routledge Companion to 
the Study of Religion 

Edited by John R. Hinnells 

il Routledge 

K TJH Taylor & F rancis Group 

Also available as a printed book 

see title verso for ISBN details 

The Routledge Companion 
to the Study of Religion 

'A companion in the very best sense of the word: it provides the reader with excellent guides 
and mentors to walk alongside on the path to understanding. . . . The result is an intelligent, 
fair-minded, thorough, and cutting-edge exploration of the field of religious studies.' 

Wendy Doniger, Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service 
Professor of the History of Religions, University of Chicago 

'This is a very rich Companion to the Study of Religion. The survey of key approaches 
provides an excellent introduction for students and others, while the chapters show the 
reader why and where the study of religion is relevant to our contemporary situation.' 

Willem B. Drees, Professor of Philosophy of Religion 
and Ethics, Leiden University, the Netherlands 

The Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion is a major resource for everyone taking courses 
in religious studies. It begins by explaining the most important methodological approaches to 
religion - including psychology, philosophy, anthropology and comparative study - before 
moving on to explore a wide variety of critical issues, such as gender, science, fundamentalism, 
ritual and new religious movements. Written by renowned international specialists, and using 
clear and accessible language throughout, it is an excellent guide to the problems and questions 
found in exams and on courses. 

• Surveys the history of religious studies and the key disciplinary approaches 

• Highlights contemporary issues such as globalization, diaspora and politics 

• Explains why the study of religion is relevant in today's world 

• A valuable resource for courses at all levels 

John R. Hinnells is Professor of the Comparative Study of Religions at Liverpool Hope 
University, and was previously professor at SOAS and the University of Manchester. His 
specialist research area is Zoroastrianism and the Parsis, on which he has written, among 
others, The Zoroastrian Diaspora (2005), Zoroastrian and Parsi Studies (2000) and Zoroastrians 
in Britain (1996). He is also the editor of various works, including The New Penguin Handbook 
of Living Religions (2000), The Penguin Dictionary of Religions (1997), Who's Who of Religions 
(1996) and the Routledge Library of Religious Beliefs and Practices series. 

Contributors: Eric Sharpe, Robert Segal, David Ford, Peter Vardy, Donald Wiebe, Martin 
Riesebrodt, Mary Ellen Konieczny, Rosalind Hackett, Daniel Merkur, Douglas Allen, William 
E. Paden, Darlene Juschka, Kim Knott, Paul Heelas, Richard King, Judith Fox, Henry Munson, 
Paul Gifford, Garrett Green, Michael Barnes, George Moyser, Christopher Park, Thomas 
Dixon, Luther Martin, Mark Hulsether, Sean McLoughlin. 

The Routledge Companion to 
the Study of Religion 

Edited by John R. Hinnells 

Q Routledge 

S^^ Taylor Si Francis Group 

First published 2005 by Routledge 

2 Park Square, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon OX 1 4 4RN 

Simultaneously published in the USA and Canada 

by Routledge 

270 Madison Ave, New York, NY 1 00 1 6 

Rout/edge is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group 

This edition published in the Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2005. 

"To purchase your own copy of this or any of Taylor & Francis or Routledge' s 
collection of thousands of eBooks please go to" 

© 2005 John R. Hinnells for selection and editorial material; individual 
contributors their contributions 

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or 
utilized in any form or by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now 
known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in any 
information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the 

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data 

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library 

Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data 
The Routledge companion to the study of religion / 

edited by John Hinnells. 
p. cm. 

I. Religion - Study and teaching. I. Hinnells, John R. II. Title. 

BL4I.R685 2005 

200'.7l-dc22 2004023489 

ISBN 0-203-41269-9 Master e-book ISBN 

ISBN 0-203-67171-6 (Adobe eReader Format) 
ISBN 0-4I5-333IO-5 (hbk) 
ISBN 0-415-3331 1-3 (pbk) 


Notes on contributors ix 

Introduction 1 

Why study religions? 5 


The study of religion in historical perspective 21 



Key approaches to the study of religions 47 

3 Theories of religion 49 


4 Theology 61 


5 Philosophy of religion 80 


6 Religious studies 98 


7 Sociology of religion 125 


8 Anthropology of religion 144 


9 Psychology of religion 164 


10 Phenomenology of religion 182 


vi Contents 

11 Comparative religion 208 



Key issues in the study of religions 227 

12 Gender 229 


13 Insider/outsider perspectives 243 


14 Postmodernism 259 


15 Orientalism and the study of religions 275 


16 Secularization 291 


17 Mysticism and spirituality 306 


18 New religious movements 323 


19 Fundamentalism 337 


20 Myth and ritual 355 


21 Religious authority: scripture, tradition, charisma 379 


22 Hermeneutics 392 


23 Religious pluralism 407 


24 Religion and politics 423 


25 Religion and geography 439 


26 Religion and science 456 


Contents vii 

27 Religion and cognition 473 


28 Religion and culture 489 


29 Religion and the arts 509 


30 Migration, diaspora and transnationalism: transformations of 526 
religion and culture in a globalising age 

seAn mcloughlin 

Index 550 

Notes on contributors 

Douglas Allen, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Maine, is author and 
editor of over ten books, including Structure and Creativity of Religion and other 
books focusing on phenomenology of religion. He served as President of the 
International Society for Asian and Comparative Philosophy (2000-3) and has 
had Fulbright and Smithsonian grants to India. His most recent book is Myth and 
Religion in Mircea Eliade (Routledge 2002). 

Michael Barnes studied Theology at Heythrop College in the University of London 
and Indian Religions at the University of Oxford. After doctoral studies in 
Cambridge he now teaches Theology and Religious Studies at Heythrop and runs 
a small inter-faith centre in Southall, West London. 

Thomas Dixon is a Lecturer in History at Lancaster University. His first book, From 
Passions to Emotions: The Creation of a Secular Psychological Category was published 
by Cambridge University Press in 2003. His teaching and research interests include 
topics in the histories of science, religion, ethics and political thought, especially 
in Britain and America from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries. 

David F. Ford is Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge. He 
is the author of numerous books, including: Theology: A Very Short Introduction 
(2000), Self and Salvation: Being Transformed (1999), The Shape of Living (1997), 
Meaning and Truth in 2 Corinthians (1988, with Frances M. Young), jubilate: 
Theology in Praise (1984, with Daniel W. Hardy) and Barth and God's Story: Biblical 
Narrative and the Theological Method of Karl Barth in the Church Dogmatics (1981). 
He also directs the Cambridge Interfaith Programme and is a member of the 
editorial board of Modern Theology and Scottish Journal of Theology. 

Judith Fox is an independent academic who has researched South Asian new religious 
movements for over twenty years. In addition to journal articles and contributions 
to edited volumes, she has recently produced Sahaja Yoga (Richmond: Curzon Press 
1999) and Osho Rajneesh (Salt Lake City: Signature Books 2002). 

Paul Gifford teaches in the Department of the Study of Religions of the School of 
Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London. He has 
published widely on Christianity in Africa, religion and development and on the 
role of scripture in religion. 

x Notes on contributors 

Garrett Green is the Class of 1943 Professor of Religious Studies at Connecticut 
College (New London, Connecticut). He is the author of Imagining God: Theology 
and the Religious Imagination (1989, 1998) and Theology, Hermeneutics , and 
Imagination: The Crisis of Interpretation at the End of Modernity (2000). 

Rosalind I. J. Hackett is a distinguished Professor in the Humanities at the University 
of Tennessee, Knoxville, where she teaches courses in Religious Studies and 
Anthropology. She has published widely on new religious movements in Africa 
(New Religious Movements in Nigeria, ed. 1987), as well as on religious pluralism 
(Religion in Calabar, 1989), art (Art and Religion in Africa 1996), religion in rela- 
tion to human rights (Religious Persecution as a U.S. Policy Issue, co-edited, 1999), 
as well as gender, the media, conflict and violence. She is Vice President of the 
International Association for the History of Religions. 

Paul Heelas, a Sociologist of Religion, has a longstanding interest in spirituality and 
religion in the West. Having published The New Age Movement (1996) and 
Spiritualities of Life (2005) (the latter together with Linda Woodhead), he is 
currently embarking on a volume which will complete his trilogy with Blackwell. 
His approach to the study of spirituality has gravitated from emphasizing the sacral- 
ization of the self to emphasizing the sacralization of life. 

John R. Hinnells is Professor of the Comparative Study of Religions at Liverpool 
Hope University and was previously professor at SOAS and the University of 
Manchester. His specialist research area is Zoroastrianism and the Parsis, on which 
he has written, among others, The Zoroastrian Diaspora (2005), Zoroastrian and Parsi 
Studies (2000) and Zoroastrians in Britain (1996). He is also the editor of various 
works, including The New Penguin Handbook of Living Religions (2000), The Penguin 
Dictionary of Religions (1997), Who's Who of Religions (1996) and the Routledge 
Library of Religious Beliefs and Practices series. 

Mark Hulsether is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and American Studies 
at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He is the author of Building a Protestant 
Left: Christianity and Crisis Magazine, 1941-1993 and many articles on religion, 
culture and politics in the United States. 

Darlene M. Juschka teaches in Women's Studies and Religious Studies at the Uni- 
versity of Regina. She has recently published 'The Writing of Ethnography: Magical 
Realism and Michael Taussig' in Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory and has 
an edited volume Feminism and the Study of Religion: A Reader (Continuum, 2001). 

Richard King is the author of four books including Early Advaita Vedanta and 
Buddhism. The Mahay ana Context of the Gaudapadiyakarika (State University of New 
York Press, 1995), Indian Philosophy. An Introduction to Hindu and Buddhist Thought 
(Edinburgh and Georgetown University Presses, 1999/2000), Orientalism and 
Religion. Postcolonial Theory, India and 'the Mystic East' (London and New York: 
Routledge, 1999) and Selling Spirituality The Silent Takeover of Religion (co-authored 
with Dr Jeremy Carrette, Routledge 2004). Dr King has published numerous 
articles on Hindu and Buddhist thought, postcolonial approaches to the study of 
religion and the study of mysticism. He has served as Head of Religious Studies 

Notes on contributors xi 

at Stirling and Derby Universities and is currently Associate Professor of Religious 
Studies at Vanderbilt University, Tennessee. 

Kim Knott is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Leeds, and Director 
of the Community Religions Project. Her current interests are in religion, locality 
and space, and research methods in the study of religions. She is author of The 
Location of Religion: A Spatial Analysis (Equinox, 2005), Hinduism: A Very Short 
Introduction (1998), and other books and articles on religions in Britain, new reli- 
gious movements and gender and religion. 

Mary Ellen Konieczny is a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at the University of Chicago. 
Her dissertation, The Spirit's Tether: Orthodoxy, Liberalism and Family among 
American Catholics, is an ethnographic study exploring how religion shapes percep- 
tions and practices of gender relations, sexuality and childrearing among middle- 
class Catholics. She has worked on the National Congregations Study, and her 
published papers include 'Resources, Race and Female-Headed Congregations in 
the United States' in the journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (2000). 

Dr Sean McLoughlin is Lecturer in South Asian, Islamic and Religious Studies in 
the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Leeds. He 
holds a Ph.D. in Social Anthropology (Manchester) and is author of various 
articles on the Muslim presence in Britain. His first book is Representing Muslims: 
Religion, Ethnicity and the Politics of Identity (Pluto Press, London). 

Luther H. Martin is Professor of Religion at the University of Vermont. He is the 
author of Hellenistic Religions (1987) and of numerous articles in this area of his 
historical specialization. He has also published widely in the field of theory and 
method in the study of religion, most recently co-editing Theorizing Religions Past: 
Archaeology , History, and Cognition (2004). He is also co-editor of a series on The 
Cognitive Science of Religion (AltaMira Press). 

Dan Merkur is a psychoanalyst in private practice in Toronto and a Research Reader 
in the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto. He has taught at five 
universities and published nine books in the history and/or psychoanalysis of 
religion, including Psychoanalytic Approaches to Myth (2004). 

George Moyser is Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science at the 
University of Vermont. He has published several books and numerous articles on 
the relationship of religion and politics including, Politics and Religion in the Modern 
World (Routledge), Church and Politics in a Secular Age (The Clarendon Press) and 
Church and Politics Today (T & T Clark). 

Henry Munson is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Maine. He was a 
Visiting Scholar in Anthropology at Harvard University in 2003-4- He is the 
author of The House of Si Abd Allah: The Oral History of a Moroccan Family (1984), 
Islam and Revolution in the Middle East (1988) and Religion and Power in Morocco 
(1993). He is currently writing a book on the roots of Islamic militancy. 

William E. Paden is Professor and Chair, Department of Religion, at the University 
of Vermont. He is the author of Interpreting the Sacred: Ways of Viewing Religion, 
and Religious Worlds: The Comparative Study of Religion, and numerous articles on 
theory and method. 

xii Notes on contributors 

Chris Park is a Professorial Fellow and Director of the Graduate School at Lancaster 
University, England. A graduate of the Universities of Ulster and Exeter, he has 
taught Geography at Lancaster for more than two decades, and has published 
widely within the environmental field, including the popular textbook The 
Environment: Principles and Applications (Routledge, 2nd edn 2001). His 1994 book 
Sacred Worlds: An Introduction to Geography and Religion (Routledge) is one of the 
few academic books that deal with the subject. 

Martin Riesebrodt has been Professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago 
since 1990. Among his publications are Pious Passion. The Emergence of Modern 
Fundamentalism in the United States and Iran, translated by Don Reneau (1993), 
Die Rilckkehr der Religionen. Fundamentalismus und der Kampf der Kulturen (2000) 
and Max Webers Religionssystematik, edited with Hans Kippenberg, (2001). 

Robert A. Segal is Professor of Theories of Religion at the University of Lancaster, 
where he has taught since emigrating from the US in 1994- He is the author of The 
Poimandres as Myth (1986), Religion and the Social Sciences (1989), Joseph Campbell 
(rev. edn 1990), Explaining and Interpreting Religion (1992), Theorizing about Myth 
(1999), and Myth: A Very Short Introduction (2004). He is the editor of The Gnostic 
Jung (1992), The Allure of Gnosticism (1995), The Myth and Ritual Theory (1998), 
Jung on Mythology (1998), Hero Myths (2000) and the Blackwell Companion to the 
Study of Religion (forthcoming). He is also European Editor of Religion. 

Eric J. Sharpe, in his early career, taught at the Universities of Lancaster and 
Manchester. In 1977 he was appointed to the First Chair of Religious Studies in 
Australia, at the University of Sydney, which he held until his retirement in 1996. 
His publications in the fields of religious studies and missiology include Comparative 
Religion: A History (1975), Understanding Religion (1983), Karl Ludvig Reichelt, 
Missionary , Scholar and Pilgrim (1984) and Nathan Soderblom and the Study of Religion 
(1990). Eric Sharpe died on 19 October, 2000, only days after completing his 
chapter in this book. 

Peter Vardy is regarded as one of the leading experts on Religious and Values Education 
in Britain, Australia and New Zealand. He is the Vice Principal of Heythrop College, 
University of London where he lectures in Philosophy of Religion. He has published 
many books and articles, including What is Truth? (John Hunt Publishing) and 
Being Human (Darton Longman and Todd) and he has co-written The Thinkers Guide 
to Evil and The Thinkers Guide to God (John Hunt Publishing) with Julie Arliss. 
He is the series editor of Fount Christian Thinkers and consulting editor of Dialogue 
Australasia. Peter is a former President of the London Society for the Study of 
Religions and a member of the Society for the Study of Theology as well as a founder 
member of the British Society for Philosophy of Religion. 

Donald Wiebe is Professor of the Philosophy of Religion in the Faculty of Divinity at 
Trinity College (University of Toronto). He is the author of Religion and Truth: 
Towards an Alternative Paradigm for the Study of Religion (1981), The Irony of Theology 
and the Nature of Religious Thought (1991), Beyond Legitimation: Essays on the Problem 
of Religious Knowledge (1994) and The Politics of Religious Studies: The Continuing 
Conflict with Theology in the University (1998) as well as numerous scholarly articles 
and reviews. He edits the series Toronto Studies in Religion for Peter Lang Press. 


Religions do not exist, nor are they studied, in a vacuum. While this book was being 
prepared major international events have rocked religions and societies: the attack 
on the Twin Towers in New York and on the Pentagon on 9/11; the war in 
Afghanistan, ever more brutal battles between Palestinians and Jews and the inva- 
sion of Iraq appear to have pitched three religions against each other Judaism, 
Christianity and Islam; bombs in Bali and Kenya, conflict in the Sudan, the opening 
up of the old Soviet Union to Christian missionaries — and to New Religious 
Movements — have given religions a huge, and often frightening, prominence on a 
global basis. 

This book looks at the many perspectives from which religions may be viewed. It 
starts by looking at different answers to the question 'why study religion?'. It then 
considers how the study of religion(s) has developed — it is important to know how 
we got to where we are in a subject and how scholars have theorized about religion. 
The chapter by Eric Sharpe maps the historical picture of the growth of religious 
studies. Contrary to popular imagination there are many disciplines or approaches 
involved in the study of religions; each is discussed here in a separate chapter. The 
obvious routes are theology and religious studies, though there is much debate about 
the relationship between the two. In America there are indications of a growing 
difference, whereas in Britain the two appear to be coming closer together as can be 
seen in their respective chapters in this book (Ford and Wiebe). Authors were asked 
to look particularly at recent developments in their subjects; Rosalind Hackett exem- 
plifies this in her chapter on anthropology by avoiding the all-too-common tour 
of nineteenth-century theorists. There are various social and/or scientific ways of 
studying religions — sociologically (Riesebrodt and Konieczny), anthropologically 
or by use of philosophy (Vardy) and through phenomenology (a term used by 
Allen slightly differently in religious studies from its use in 'straight' philosophy). 
'Psychology of religion' is an umbrella term for a number of approaches, which are 
discussed in the article by Merkur. William Paden, author of two of the most widely 
used books on comparative religion, has authored the chapter on that subject here. 

Whichever methodological approach one pursues, there are a number of key issues 
addressed by scholars involved with religions. Gender has obviously become a major 
topic (Juschka). Across many disciplines and subjects, postmodernism (Heelas) has 
become a way of addressing questions that simply cannot be ignored; in a similar 
manner, postcolonialism and Orientalism (King) have been influential in the reassess- 
ment of world-views. A question perhaps more specific to religious studies is that of 

2 Introduction 

the merits and problems of an 'insider's' perspective and understanding of a religion 
or culture, compared with that from the outside (Knott). In the 1960s and 1970s 
there was much debate on the processes of secularization, which contrasted with the 
growth of interest in spirituality, mysticism (King) and a proliferation of New 
Religious Movements (Fox). Contrary to what 'rationalist' approaches to society 
might have expected, fundamentalism (often a misused term), seems to have become 
more prominent in various cultures and countries (Munson). Old — and new — myths 
and rituals are interpenetrating and central to most religions and cultures (Segal). 
The question of authority is a major feature in many traditions, both in the sense 
of religious individuals and their charisma, and in terms of the established authori- 
ties and texts (Gifford). Of course, texts are not static; the words may not change, 
but their interpretation does — an issue at the heart of hermeneutics (Green). 
Religions do not exist in a vacuum, so six chapters then consider how religions have 
been involved in, interacted with or been seen through the prism of politics (Moyser), 
geography and geographical conditions (Park), advances in scientific discoveries and 
thought (Dixon), culture (Hulsether) and the arts (Hinnells). The chapter on reli- 
gion and cognition by Martin looks at one of the most challenging forms of current 
approaches to religious studies. Back in the 1960s and 1970s international migration 
increased dramatically. It was assumed by many that migrants would, over a couple 
of generations, 'assimilate' and leave their religion behind. The reverse has happened, 
resulting in a growth in the study of diasporas around the globe (McLoughlin). As 
religions have met and interacted — and sometimes experienced tensions — so reli- 
gious pluralism has become a question that many people have had to address (Barnes). 

There have been numerous debates about definitions and presuppositions in the 
study of religion. Many scholars have questioned whether there is any such 'thing' 
as religion, there are only the religions. But some have gone further and questioned 
the value of the term 'religion' at all. In various languages, in Sanskrit for example, 
there is no word for 'religion'. Is 'religion' a Western construct imposed on various 
cultures as a part of intellectual imperialism? It has been said that 'words mean what 
we want them to'. My own opinion is that the word 'religion' is useful, but should 
be used with caution. 

The ease of travel and large migrations to and from many countries have resulted 
in 'globalization', the interaction of cultures at a global level. 'The other' is encoun- 
tered more often, more closely and by more people than ever before. Whereas some 
'religions' were remote and exotic now they are part of the local scenery for many 
of us. 

Students on many courses become fretful when studying theory and method. 
However, the more complex the subject, the more important such areas become. When 
that subject is one as full of sensitivities, presuppositions and prejudices as the study of 
religion is, then it is essential that, from the outset, the student is alerted to debates 
and doubts, and that key issues, motives, aims and beliefs are foregrounded - that is 
why my own assumptions and interests are articulated frankly and explicitly in the first 
chapter. I spent much time reflecting on the value of a section on the definition of 
important terms, for example 'religion'. But Mark Taylor has done just that (1998: 20) 
and for shorter articles students can consult my New Penguin Dictionary of Religions 
(1997). I thought this book should be on theoretical approaches and key issues at 
the heart of debate in the study of religions. There is no one 'right' way to study 

Introduction 3 

religions. One 'wrong way' is dogmatism - that does not appear in this volume. Not 
only are there different approaches, there are also different opinions and emphases — 
and much enthusiasm for the subjects (it is perhaps best to avoid the singular!). The 
publishers suggested that I indicate how the book may be used in courses. Had it been 
available during the forty years in which I taught the subject at undergraduate level, I 
would have woven a seminar around each chapter; if it were at (post)graduate level 
I would have required students to have read the relevant chapter before a lecture or 
seminar. However it is used I hope it is useful. 

In planning the book authors were invited who are specialists and leaders in their 
field, on the basis that an introduction to a subject can be the most influential liter- 
ature a student ever reads. In addition, it is often the person who has real command 
of the subject who is the person with the vision to give the best overview. Each 
author received the same authors brief on length, treatment of material and bibli- 
ography. Inevitably some kept more closely to the brief than others; equally inevitably 
some have different perceptions of what are the appropriate issues and levels for 
students in their first year of studying religions. Such are the facts of life for every 
editor. Nor is it necessarily a bad thing. The students using it will be different and 
it is foolish to invite senior scholars to contribute and then to put them all into a 
straightjacket. Furthermore, some topics are better handled in one way rather than 
another. But all authors have been willing to discuss and amend their text. 

Inevitably, the moment a book is ready to go to press one thinks of missing subjects 
- I have already alerted the publishers to three additional topics for any second 
edition! The structure of the book follows broadly the structure of the introductory 
course I taught at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London University, 
some of the time with one of the contributors to the book Dr Judith Fox; she joined 
the course to the benefit and delight of both myself and the students. It has been 
amended in the light of discussion with Professors Rosalind Hackett and Don Wiebe 
in the early stages, and Professor Robert Segal has helped considerably on several 
occasions. I am indebted to all of them, although I take responsibility for any fail- 
ings in the overall conception and execution of the book. The book has taken far 
longer to produce than the authors and I would have wished. In part that was due 
to family bereavement, to a series of major pieces of surgery and to a change of 
publisher. I am glad that the book is finally appearing with a publisher with whom 
I have worked for over thirty years. 

I would like to dedicate my work in this book to Eric Sharpe, a long-standing 
close friend, who finished his chapter for this book only a few days before his death. 

John R. Hinnells 

Chapter I 

Why study religions? 

John R. Hinnells 


Are the study of theology and religious studies only for religious people ? If you are reli- 
gious, should you not get on and practice your religion rather than study it? If you are 
studying religions, should you not get on with that — studying them - rather than dis- 
cussing abstract theories and debates on methods? The answer to each of these ques- 
tions is 'no'. Obviously many people do wish to study religion if they are religious, 
because they want to know more about their own religion, or be able to see their reli- 
gion in the context of others. Some people find studying religion helps to develop their 
own spiritual journey, be they Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Zoroastrian or whatever. 
Students in most fields object to starting a subject by lectures on theory and method. 
But it is necessary to be aware of the different disciplinary perspectives used, and to 
be alert to some of the key issues that affect basic presuppositions. 

But why study religions if you are not religious and/or do not want to become reli- 
gious? As a Professor of the comparative study of religion, the first question I am com- 
monly asked when meeting people is - 'which religion do you belong to?'. Those who 
know me to be an atheist, often ask why I spend most of my life studying something 
I believe to be wrong? Indeed one might go further. I incline to the view that reli- 
gions are dangerous because more people have been tortured and killed for religious 
reasons than for any other motive. Persecution, the torture and killing of heretics and 
people of other religions have been major themes running through much of world 
history. At a personal level a religion can be helpful, supportive and even joyous for 
many people. But equally many are tortured by feelings of guilt or shame because they 
cannot live according to the ideals of their religion, or cannot in conscience accept 
doctrines they are expected to hold. 

Of course one does not have to agree with something in order to study it. Students 
of the Holocaust do not have to agree with Hitler and his followers. One can learn 
something about history, about oneself, from studying even evil forces. But why have 
whole departments of theology and religious studies? Why have such financial and 
human resources been invested in the subject if it is harmful or marginal, and for which 
one has no attachment? Increasingly sociology, psychology, history, philosophy depart- 
ments in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have moved religious studies towards 
the margins of their subject. One does not have to be ill to become a doctor but one 
does have to want to care for and aid the sick to be a doctor — why study religions 
if one does not wish to encourage people to be religious? Some universities have it 

6 Why study religions? 

in their constitution that they shall not teach or research religion — University College 
London and Liverpool are two examples in Britain. 

Despite my own non-religious position, however, I want to argue that the study 
of religions is vital and not only for 'the Hitler principle' that one should never 
ignore forces for destruction (nor is it because religions have sometimes been forces 
for good), but because of the massive power that religions have wielded, something 
that no one can deny. I question whether one can understand any culture and history 
- political or social — without understanding the relevant religions. This is true not 
only of 'the Holy Roman Empire' or the Islamic conquest of Iran, i.e. in past history; 
it is true in the twenty-first century as well. Although the situation in Northern 
Ireland is complex it cannot be denied that there are strong religious motives involved 
in the conflict there; there is sectarian hatred. Christian Serbians were killing Muslims 
in the former Yugoslavia; Muslims in many countries believe that the West is anti- 
Muslim and many fear that if there is another World War it will be between Islam 
and the Christian world. 

Originally my intention had been to write a standard survey of academic argu- 
ments for and against such studies. Obviously one only writes an Introduction to a 
book when all the material is in. Having read all the chapters it is clear that there 
are several scholarly and well-written articles in this book surveying the field. So I 
concluded that this should be a personal piece based on forty years of university 
teaching, also to make explicit my motive in producing the book and why it is struc- 
tured with certain emphases. It means that most examples will be taken from my 
specialist field — the Parsis and their religion Zoroastrianism. There is no single argu- 
ment for why and how one studies religions. Many readers will reject my arguments 
completely and that is perfectly reasonable; maybe where this book is used for a 
course an early seminar discussion on the subject may be 'why study religions?' The 
basic question to be addressed is: why should an atheist want to study religions? First, 
it is necessary at the start of a book of this nature to discuss what one means by the 
term 'religion'. 

Defining religion 

There have been endless discussions of the definition of 'religion'. Indeed recently 
some scholars have argued for avoiding the word 'religion' as meaningless and have 
argued instead for the term 'culture'. This introduction is not a place for extensive 
debate, but rather as a place for explaining where I am 'coming from' as editor of 
this book, but it would be a mistake not to indicate my position on this primary 
issue of saying what is meant by the word 'religion'. In my opinion there is no such 
thing as 'religion', there are only the religions, i.e. those people who identify them- 
selves as members of a religious group, Christians, Muslims, etc. An act or thought 
is religious when the person concerned thinks they are practising their 'religion'. 
Organizations are religious when the people involved think they are functioning reli- 
giously. In some societies in East Asia a person may have, say, a Christian initiation, 
a Buddhist wedding and a Chinese funeral, in my understanding at the moment they 
are acting, say, in a Christian way then at that moment they are a Christian. Of 
course the boundaries of those groups are fluid - so some people who claim to be, 
say, Muslims are not accepted by the majority of that religion as being 'true' Muslims. 

Why study religions? 7 

My general position in discussing religions is that people are what they believe they 
are. I am cautious about replacing 'religion' with 'culture' (Fitzgerald 2000, see also 
McCutcheon 2001) partly because that simply moves the debate on to the question 
of what is meant by 'culture'. But many others see culture as something that includes 
religion, but that also has much wider connotations. The Parsis, for example, have 
what they see as their culture in addition to their religion. The equivalent term is 
Parsi panu (Parsi-ness), and it includes non-religious dress (e.g. the Parsi style of a 
sari in contrast to the religious garments the sacred shirt and cord, sudre and kusti), 
drama (nataks — in Gujarati, rather bawdy but huge fun — and never on religious 
themes) and their own highly distinctive way of cooking dhansak. All these are Parsi 
favourites, common not only in the old country but also in the diaspora. They would 
interpret such items as parts of Parsi culture but not part of their Zoroastrian reli- 
gion. Parsis who say they are not Zoroastrians (either because they are not religious 
or if they have converted to, say, Christianity) are still likely to enjoy Parsi panu. 
Some of my colleagues disagree with the use of the phrase 'the religious dimension' 
of a situation or event. I do not wish to imply that there is any 'thing' out there 
that is religious. But events, like people, are complex, and can have both religious 
and secular dimensions; having one does not exclude the other. An act is a religious 
act when the person involved believes it to be associated with their religion. A reli- 
gious thought is a thought which the thinker thinks is Zoroastrian (Christian, etc.). 
Of course I recognize that the situation is far from clear-cut. What of 'cultures' that 
have no word for 'religion', as in Sanskrit, and where the term for a religion is 
anachronistic, for example the term 'Hinduism', which is a modern West-imposed 
label for a plethora of different groups, beliefs and practices across a large continent 
with some purely local phenomena. 'Hinduism' exists in the diaspora communities 
because of compliance with use of Western categories, e.g. to obtain charitable status. 
Ninian Smart's use of the term 'world views' has some merits, but prioritizes the 
belief aspect of religion that is inappropriate elsewhere, e.g. Parsis for whom 'reli- 
gion' is to do with individual identity; it is something in the blood or genes, to do 
with community boundaries and associated practices but with little or no reference 
to beliefs. In the case of Zoroastrianism 'religion' is appropriate since there is a term 
(den) that it is reasonable to translate as 'religion'. All 'labels' have limitations and 
these must be accepted, so 'religion' is a useful but potentially misleading term. 

Religions and politics 

The former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, once argued strongly that 
religion was a private matter of belief (therefore bishops should not get involved in 
political debates as they were doing). But I believe that in this assertion she was 
completely wrong. Religions and religious leaders, have rarely been outside politics, 
be they Jesus, Muhammad or Gandhi. Christianity was a driving force in Spanish, 
Portuguese and British empire-building. With the first two there was a powerful urge 
for converts as well as fortunes. The British came to stress 'the white man's burden' 
of 'civilizing the natives' (though fortunes and converts were also welcome!). 

Partition in South Asia in 1947 sought to create separate Muslim and Hindu 
nations. These countries have been to war, or on the brink of it, many times in the 
following decades (though, now that there are more Muslims in India than in Pakistan, 

8 Why study religions? 

the religious divisions no longer follow the original policy). The showing and sales of 
videos of the two Indian epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata stoked (probably 
unwittingly) the fires of Indian nationalism and the radical BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) 
party came to power. A touchstone was the Hindu claim to the site of the mosque at 
Ayodhya, which they claimed was built over an important Hindu temple (Van der 
Veer). Many looked on in horror at the Hindu attacks on Muslims, the mob violence 
and the torching of Muslim homes in Bombay and Gujarat by Hindu militants in the 
early 1990s. The sorry tale of religious violence extends over all continents. 

In the contemporary world the various religions seem to be even more prominent: 
the Israeli conviction that the land of Israel is God's gift to them and has led to 
attempts to eject or impose themselves over the Palestinians (who respond with 
suicide missions). The reason why it is thought American governments ignore Israel's 
breaking of UN resolutions is due to the powerful Jewish lobby in the US; rightly 
or wrongly many Muslims believe it be an anti-Islam stance. The Shah was over- 
thrown in 1979 for various reasons, but a major factor was the popular uprising led 
by Ayatollah Khomeini on the grounds that American influence had become more 
important to the government than Islam. It is difficult to believe that the invasion 
of Iraq in 2003/4 is legitimately explained simply by the terrible massacre of thou- 
sands in the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York on 9/11. It is not only 
that there is little evidence of Iraqi Government involvement in al Qaeda activity; 
it is highly unlikely because Saddam Hussein was not a particular ally of a move- 
ment that opposed his secularizing tendencies. President Bush and Prime Minister 
Blair, both of whom have made public their Christian religious position, sought 
'regime change' through invasion or 'a crusade' as Bush called it. For Muslims in 
many countries this was seen as a Christian assault on Islam and the consequences 
will almost certainly be with us for many years and may well have brought al Qaeda's 
ideology into Iraq and provoked more militant Muslims in many countries. Many 
fear it might bring nearer a war between the Christian 'West' and Islam. 

Some writers suggest such acts are not the outcome of 'real' or 'true' Christianity/ 
Islam, etc., rather they suggest this is people using a religion to justify their violence; 
it is not, they say, that religion is the cause of the problems. Even the fighting in 
Northern Ireland between Catholics and Protestants is often put down to other 
causes. Doubtless there are a variety of factors in most conflicts, but religions are 
often potent factors in the explosions of violence. Of course religions can also be at 
the forefront of movements for peace and justice; for example Gandhi's non-violent 
campaign; Archbishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa; the Reverend Martin Luther 
King with his dream in America; and the bishops' stand taken against the corrupt 
dictators in South America with 'Liberation theology'. How can anyone doubt the 
importance of studying religions when they are such potent forces? 

Religion and culture 

Is it possible to understand another culture without looking at the appropriate religion 
practiced there, be that in ancient Egypt or modern America? (It should be noted that 
the term 'culture' is a contested one, see Masuzawa in Taylor 1998: 70—93.) It is often 
difficult to say which came first, the religion or the values and ideals — but basically it 
does not matter; they are now part of an intricate network. In pre-modern times most 

Why study religions? 9 

artwork was produced for use in the relevant religion. How can one study the art with- 
out understanding its use and context? Whether the student/teacher/writer is religious 
or not, one cannot — should not — fail to study the religion of the culture. A study of 
the history of Gothic churches or of artefacts from Primal societies in North America 
or Africa or the Pacific without setting them in their religious context is inevitably 
going to fail to understand their importance and 'meaning'. The artist may or may not 
have been inspired by the religion of his region but it is important to know something 
of the culture in which the object was produced and used, and religions are commonly 
an important part of that culture. 

In the contemporary world, interaction with other cultures is inevitable, with trade, 
in the news, when travelling or just watching television; meeting a different cultural 
tradition is inevitable for most people. To understand a religion, it is essential to have 
an awareness of the different sets of values and ideals, customs and ethical values. Even 
if the people one meets from the 'other' culture are not religious, nevertheless their 
principles, values and ideals will commonly have been formed by the religion of their 
culture. Although an atheist, I have no doubt that my value system has been formed 
by Christianity, specifically Anglican Christianity. My attitudes to gender relations, 
prioritizing one set of values over another, what I consider to be 'good and bad', have 
all been affected by my general background of which Christianity was a major part. 

Racial and religious prejudices are major issues in the contemporary world. They 
are often interwoven so it is not clear whether someone is discriminated against for 
being, say, from Pakistan or because of prejudice against Islam, and either can be 
the excuse for violence. In the 1980s and 1990s I undertook a survey questionnaire 
among Zoroastrians in America, Australia, Britain, Canada, China, East Africa, 
Pakistan, and conducted a series of in-depth interviews with Zoroastrians in France 
and Germany. Many respondents believed that they had faced prejudice, especially 
in Canada, but there they said they had faced it mainly in obtaining a first job. Once 
you had shown that you were good at your work, they said, you were accepted. In 
America one-third of my respondents said that they had experienced discrimination, 
but what they feared even more was the threat of the 'melting pot' eroding their 
identity. Some scholars describe the 'melting pot' as a myth, and there have been 
different terms used, e.g. a 'salad bowl' of cultures. American respondents and infor- 
mants thought that the 'melting pot' was a threatening reality. The countries in 
which most people said that they frequently faced discrimination were Germany and 
Britain - especially in schooling (Hinnells 2005). One major motive for me in 
pursuing the comparative study of religions (usually abbreviated, conveniently if 
unfortunately, to comparative religion) is to encourage knowledge and understanding 
between religions and cultures, based on the assumption that prejudice will be over- 
come if each knows more about the other. The media and many sections of society 
have stereotypical images of 'the other'. I hope that knowledge will result in under- 
standing, and thereby better relations between peoples. Above all my 'quest' as a 
teacher is to enable students to 'see through the spectacles' of another culture. I do 
not believe that there is a block of knowledge that has to be conveyed. If someone 
can develop an empathetic understanding of one other culture, the result will be 
that they are more ready to empathize with other cultures as well. But am I wrong? 
Is it necessarily the case that the more you know about the other religion, the more 
you will think positively about people from that religion? Some might be alienated 

10 Why study religions? 

from it. Would people respect Hitler more if they knew more about him? Maybe my 
motives are 'woolly liberalism'. If I thought that, then I would feel I had wasted 
much of my academic life. 

Some common presuppositions 

Writers have a tendency to think that 'real' Islam is found in the Middle East and in 
Arabic texts; or 'real' Hinduism is found in Sanskrit texts. R. C. Zaehner, for example, 
wrote his widely used book Hinduism, without ever having been to India (when he 
went there he did not like it!). What resources he thought he needed to write about 
Hinduism were his books in his study and in the Bodleian library in Oxford. His 
methodological assumptions were shared by many of his contemporaries. Of course 
textual studies are important, both the 'sacred' texts but also their hermeneutical inter- 
pretation by later generations. One problem, however, is that these texts are commonly 
the domain of the intellectuals and the literary few - widespread literacy is a modern 
phenomena, and still not present in many countries. Archaeology can yield important 
information, but by definition most of the artefacts unearthed tend to be those which 
were most durable, costly and therefore often came from the domain of the wealthy 
and powerful, not from the wider population. That is one reason why in this chapter 
I have stressed the importance of studying various art forms both 'pop' and 'high' art. 
Meeting people from the religion studied can be very important (where possible) even 
if a student is studying ancient texts. It changes one's attitude when seeing how the 
religious literature is used. The study of religions needs to be 'polymethodic'. 

There is a common tendency in religious studies to think of religions as monolithic 
wholes. It is now quite common to question if there is any such thing as Hinduism, 
but the same is less true of the study of other religions. For example, is there any such 
'thing' as Christianity, or are there are many Christianities? Are Primitive Welsh 
Methodists a part of the same religion as the Russian Orthodox? Where does one draw 
the boundary of Christianity — does it include the Mormons or 'The Children of God' 
(now known as 'The Family'), a group which sought to express the love of God and 
Jesus through the practice of 'flirty fishing' following the Biblical injunction to become 
fishers of men (that practice has ceased but the movement remains active and some- 
what 'unconventional' — see Van Zandt). Some American tele-evangelists seem to be 
from a very different religion from that practised in St Peters in Rome - the Northern 
Ireland politician and preacher, the Reverend Ian Paisley, thinks so, judging by his 
tirades against the Pope. If a religious movement calls itself 'Christian' should it not 
be treated as part of Christianity - or one of the Christianities? 

The new growth in religion: some key questions 

In the 1960s many of us forecast that religions would gradually decline, especially, 
but not only, in the West - we were wrong! In studying religions it is important to 
ask why things happen and to understand why change comes about. 

• In many Western cities, especially in America and the Middle East, but also in 
the new Russia, in Korea, in Mumbai, religious groups have become more promi- 
nent. Why? 

Why study religions? I I 

• As far as Christianity is concerned, growth is pre-eminently among evangelicals 
and charismatic groups. Why? 

• Whereas secularization was the theme of the 1960s and 1970s, there has been 
an increase in the number of New Religious Movements (NRMs). It is impos- 
sible to estimate the number of people involved, because many of the movements 
are small, and dual membership also happens. But the number of movements 
has increased. Why? 

• The broad pattern of recruits to NRMs are middle aged, middle class, generally well 
educated — and often people who had sought but not found religious fulfilment 
in established religious groups. Why? 

• The aspect of various religions that have become more prominent is what is 
labelled as 'fundamentalism'. Why? 

In the 1970s and 1980s sociologists wrote from an entirely secular perspective 
about migration and diaspora groups in the West. The religion of the migrants and 
subsequent generations was ignored; they were simply labelled as Hindus, Muslims 
etc., but there was rarely any discussion of patterns of religious change and conti- 
nuity, nothing about how Hinduism/Islam etc. have been shaped in the diaspora. 
Because the scholars were not themselves religious, they tended to look past the reli- 
gion of the subjects they were writing about. The discussions were about prejudice, 
housing, working patterns — all, of course, issues of great importance, but writers 
ignored that which meant most for many migrants — religion. 

There was another factor. Writing as someone involved in an aspect of govern- 
ment policy relating to migration in the 1960 and 1970s, frankly it was assumed that 
migrant's religions would fade over the years and generations as they assimilated. It 
was assumed that they had left their religion behind back in the old country. These 
ideas were completely wrong. Studies of transnational or diaspora communities at 
the turn of the millennium commonly found that migrants tend to be more religious 
after migration than they were before, because their religion gives them a stake of 
continuity in a sea of change. Further, recent studies are finding that what might be 
called the second generation's 'secular ethnicity' — their Pakistani/Indian/Bangladeshi, 
etc. culture is not as meaningful to the young, who prefer to see themselves as 
Muslims/Hindus/Zoroastrians, etc. (see for example Williams 2000; Hinnells 2005). 
Religion is becoming the marker that many young people are taking up. Further, 
there was an assumption that migrants and their youngsters would be more liberal 
than the orthodox people back in the old country. This is not necessarily so. The 
religions of people in South Asia move on (I am less familiar with the literature on 
South East and East Asians in America); their religions are dynamic and change or 
'evolve'. There the changes are often greater than among people in the diaspora, for, 
in the latter, continuity matters in individual or group identity. An example of this 
would be the militancy among Sikhs in Britain, and especially in Canada, which 
was stronger than it was in India following the attack on the Golden Temple. The 
diaspora impacts on the old country. Since the 1970s the biggest source of income 
for Pakistan was money sent 'home' by families working overseas. 

One common question in many religions is that of authority. To use a Parsi example 
again: in 1906 in a test case in the Bombay High Court it was decided that the 

12 Why study religions? 

offspring of a Parsi male married out of the community could be initiated, but not 
the offspring of an intermarried woman because Parsi society was a patrilineal one 
(there were also some caste-like debates). That judgement continues to be followed 
by most Parsis in post-colonial, independent India — and by many Parsis in the dias- 
pora. Technically the authority of the High Priests (Dasturs) in India is within the 
walls of their temples (Atash Bahrams). But among the traditional/orthodox members 
in the diaspora their judgements carry considerable weight. These issues came to a 
head in the 1980s over an initiation in New York of a person neither of whose 
parents were Zoroastrians. When the furore erupted, opinions in America were evenly 
divided over whether the authority of a 1906 Bombay High Court judgement in the 
days of the British Raj, and of the priests 'back' in India, was binding over groups 
in the West in the third millennium. Lines of authority become complex as religious 
people adapt to new social, legal and cultural settings. 

There is another vitally important factor in the study of religions in their dias- 
poras, namely the implications of religious beliefs and practices of transnational groups 
for public policy in their new western homes. Some obvious examples are the impli- 
cations for healthcare. Since attitudes to pain and suffering are different in different 
religions or cultures it can be essential that doctors and nurses are sensitive to, and 
are therefore knowledgeable about, values, and the priorities of their patients 
(Hinnells and Porter 1999; Helman 1994). The problems are even more acute in 
the case of psychiatric illness because what might seem 'abnormal' behaviour in one 
society may not in another (Rack 1982; Bhugra 1996; Littlewood and Lipsedge 1997; 
Honwana 1999 on the damage which 'Western' psychological practice can inflict on 
- in this case — African peoples who had experienced the trauma of the massacres 
in Mozambique). Perhaps the instance where informed sensitivity relating to reli- 
gious/cultural values is of greatest need surrounds death and bereavement. Having 'a 
good death', the 'proper' treatment of the body and support for the bereaved all 
matter hugely to people of any culture. 'Doing the right thing' is emotionally vital 
and that commonly involves religious beliefs and practices even for those who do 
not consider themselves religious. (Spiro et al. 1996; Howarth and Jupp 1996; Irish 
et al. 1993, the last of these is particularly good on a wide range of minority groups 
in America, e.g. Native Americans.) 

The presence of a huge range of religious groups be that in Australia, Britain, Canada 
or the USA and elsewhere has serious implications for social policy and national 
laws, problems both for the minorities and for governments because many religious 
traditions evolved outside a Western legal orbit (and others which have not, e.g. the 
Mormons and polygamy). The obvious example is concerning gender issues where 
some traditions are in conflict with Western concepts of human rights (Nesbitt 
2001; Hawley 1994; Sahgal and Yuval Davis 1992; Gustafson and Juviler 1999). 
Policymakers concerned with schools and educational policy, crime and punishment 
all have a need to pay serious attention to the religions in their midst, the values, 
priorities and principles (see Haddad and Lummis 1987) especially at times such as 
the start of the twenty-first century, when Muslim feelings run high and where gov- 
ernments all too readily stigmatize minorities; when there is violence, invasion and 
wars; when there is a breakdown in aspects of human rights, for example the rights of 
prisoners. Ignoring religious issues and feelings can be exceedingly dangerous. 

Why study religions? 13 

Change in the New World 

Not only do religions change, so too do the countries to which people migrate. 
Perhaps the country which has changed the most is the USA. Prior to the Hart- 
Cellar Act of 1965 migration was only from Northern Europe and was mostly of 
English speakers. Gradually South and East Europeans were allowed in, but from the 
1970s Asians were admitted, providing they fitted the criteria of US interests, admit- 
ting in particular the highly educated, especially scientists and people in the medical 
profession. There have long been migrants, many illegal, from Mexico to undertake 
menial tasks, but with the arrival of educated Asians, perceptions of 'the other' began 
to change. Black settlers from the days of slavery became accepted in a way hardly 
imaginable in the early 1960s; so that 'People of Color' can occupy places of 
high office. Attitudes to Asian cultures had changed briefly in the 1890s with the 
Parliament of World Religions in Chicago and in particular the teaching 'missions' 
of Swami Vivekananda. But it was mainly from the 1960s that interest in Asian reli- 
gions began, with Rajneesh, the Maharishi, Reverend Moon and the work of the 
Krishna Consciousness movement. Many American cities have their China towns. 
In California there are 'villages' of nationalities, for example the Iranians settled near 
Los Angeles (in an area popularly known as 'Irangeles'). Refugees are not always the 
poor; many Iranians, for example, after the fall of the Shah brought their substan- 
tial wealth with them (see Naficy 1991). In the 1990s interest in Native' American 
religions grew. Hindu temples were built following the designs and bearing the images 
crafted by skilled traditional artists from India. The religious landscape of the US 
changed dramatically in some forty years (Eck 2000, 2002; Haddad 1991, 2000; 
Williams 1988, 2000; Warner and Wittner 1998). 

In countries where there is substantial religious pluralism, inter-faith activity has 
been important. What has yet to be adequately studied is the impact of these activ- 
ities. There are of course many benefits in developing active communications between 
groups, but I fear there may be problems not yet identified. On the Christian side 
it tends to be the Protestant churches who are involved, less so the Catholics who 
are numerically the biggest Christian denomination in the world. From the minority 
groups' side it tends to involve not necessarily the typical Hindu, Muslim, Zoroastrian, 
etc., rather those leaders whose linguistic and social skills enable them to interact 
with the 'outside world'. These 'gatekeepers' of the communities often emphasize the 
aspects of their religion that will find the most ready acceptance in the outside world, 
so with Zoroastrians they will emphasize the ancient (indeed the prophet Zoroaster's) 
emphasis on 'Good Thoughts, Good Words and Good Deeds' rather than, say, the 
purity laws. In time this sanitized version of the religion may impact back into the 
community. I read in one book of minutes from a Canadian Zoroastrian Group where 
the managing committee made a conscious decision to change the translation of an 
Avestan (roughly 'scriptural') text so that it would not offend Muslim guests. This 
is an issue which merits further study. 

What of theology? 

So far this chapter has focused on religious studies and comparative religion because 
this book is likely to be used mostly in the study of religions. For a member of any 
religion, its theology is important - the word is usually applied just to Christian 

14 Why study religions? 

thought, but there is comparable activity in most religions, certainly in Islam, Judaism 
and Zoroastrianism for example. (The late Ninian Smart often referred to Buddhology 
- and that may not be inappropriate.) 'Theologizing' is particularly important in 
many mystical groups, not least in Islam in the West (see Hinnells and Malik 2006). 
The Mullahs in Iraq and Iran have been prominent in recent times, exercising consid- 
erable influence over national politics with their teachings. For the billions of active 
religious people in the world, working out the implications of their crucial religious 
teachings for their daily life is of vital importance. Geography is far more important 
in the study of religions than is generally appreciated. Religious beliefs and ideas, 
symbols and practice, are naturally affected by social and geographical conditions in 
which the theology is elaborated. Religion in central New York is bound to have 
different symbols or images to cater for the different needs from those in a remote 
village in northern Scotland, which is in turn different in the deserts of Saudi Arabia 
or in India and Korea. I am fascinated by the differences between urban and rural 
patterns of religion. It is inevitable that if a theology is to be meaningful to a person, 
if it is 'to speak to that person', as many Christians would say, then it has to be 
different from that in a different environment. Such issues have probably been 
pursued more in the study of Buddhism, Hinduism or Islam than they have with 
Christianity (a notable exception is Ford 1997). 

Can an atheist see the point in studying theology? Its value is that it addresses the 
big questions which many people want to ask — Who am I? Where do I come from? 
Where am I going? Why do the innocent suffer? What non- theologians often over- 
look with theology is the wide range of subjects involved — textual studies and 
languages, archaeology, philosophy, ethical issues, history and through applied theol- 
ogy there is an engagement with local communities. If theology was restricted to 
theological colleges and madressas etc. the consequence would almost certainly be an 
increase in sectarian prejudice. But of course many people are religious, though they 
do not belong to a formal church yet they believe in a God. A lot of people outside 
the churches, the mosques, temples, etc. yearn for a 'spiritual' life and to them the 
study of theology and religious studies can be fulfilling. Secularism may be strong in 
Britain, but in many other countries religion is alive and well, not least in America. 

The comparative study of religions 

I am convinced by Max Miiller's dictum: 'He who knows one knows none', that is 
if you only study one religion, you are not studying religion, but just, say, Christianity 
(or Zoroastrianism, or Islam, etc.). It is only through some element of comparison 
that we appreciate just what is, and is not, characteristic of religions generally and 
what is specific to that religion. The term 'comparative study of religion' is widely 
suspected, because it was used by particular Western academics, mainly in the nine- 
teenth century, who were trying to prove that Christianity was superior to other 
religions. Some huge theories about 'religion' were constructed by writers who ranged 
widely across different religions - from the comfort of their armchairs and without 
the necessary first-hand knowledge of texts in the original language or without 
knowing people from that religion. The term 'comparative religion' has also been 
associated with superficiality because you cannot 'really' know much about a range 
of religions. But if comparative linguistics and comparative law, etc. are valid subjects 

Why study religions? 15 

then so, surely, 'the comparative study of religion' can be too. Of course I reject any 
idea of trying to compare to show the superiority of any one religion. When one is 
comparing it is essential to compare what is comparable, so should we compare the 
whole of one religion with the whole of another? In my study of the Parsi diaspora, 
it was helpful to compare the Parsi experience with that of Jews, or Hindus or Sikhs, 
etc. in that same context, which usually, but not necessarily, means in the same city 
or region. It has also been helpful to compare Parsis in different countries e.g. Britain, 
Canada and the US, or their experience in different cities in the US (e.g. Houston 
and Chicago). My theoretical question was 'how different is it being a religious Parsi, 
say, in Los Angeles or in London, or in Sydney or Hong Kong?' (Hinnells 2005). It 
is regrettable that there are not more comparative studies of diaspora religions 
in different countries so that we might discover what is, or are, the American (British/ 
Australian/Canadian) experience(s). It can also be helpful to compare the theology 
of different religions, e.g. on issues of attitudes to the body partly for doctors and 
nurses, or for the understanding of social groups (Law). 

Obviously the comparative study of religion should not be concerned only with the 
modern world. Earlier in my career I was passionately interested in the Roman cult of 
Mithras (first to fourth centuries CE). In order to understand what was significant about 
Mithraism it was important to learn about contemporary religious beliefs and practices 
in the Roman Empire. There was such a rich diversity of religious cults; Mithraism 
shared features with some (e.g. early Christianity) and not with others. In fact the key 
breakthrough in the study of Mithraism came when Gordon and Beck began to look 
at the contemporary Roman ideas on astrology (Beck). By taking a blinkered look at 
just one cult, it would have been impossible to interpret the archaeological finds of 
temples and statues (especially difficult because there are virtually no Mithraic texts, 
only inscriptions and the comments of outsiders). One of the things which disturbs 
me about some work in New Testament studies and in research on Christianity's early 
developments is that so much of the evidence is looked at only through the lens of 
the Judaeo-Christian traditions. Can one really understand the development of the 
liturgy of the Mass/Eucharist/Lord's Supper without looking at the role of sacred meals 
in the contemporary Roman religions? Nothing exists in a vacuum. It seems odd that 
so many books and courses on the philosophy of religion look at key figures such as 
Hume and Kant without looking at their contemporary world; or studying the Biblical 
work of Bultmann without looking at the anti-Semitic culture in which he lived 
and worked and which many would say coloured his account of Judaism. Taking the 
context seriously, comparing other related phenomena, is crucial. 


What of the theme of insider/outside? Can a person outside the religion really under- 
stand what it is like to be a Zoroastrian — or whatever? Even after thirty-five years 
of living with and studying Zoroastrians I think it is impossible for me to understand 
them and their religion fully. I may get close to it, but as an outsider my instincts, 
my basic thoughts and aspirations, etc. are, for better or worse, English. Ultimately 
we cannot change our basic conditioning; we cannot step outside our identity. We 
may — should — seek to go as far as possible in empathy and with understanding but 
we are all products of our own history. 

16 Why study religions? 

It is vital that students and scholars should be conscious of their own motivations 
or biases — because we all have them. It is the ones we are not aware of that are 
the most dangerous: to illustrate the point with a story against myself. I am currently 
writing a book about the Parsis of Bombay in the days of the Raj. The book's struc- 
ture seemed clear: defining key periods, important individual and social groupings; 
having worked on the history of temples, doctrinal changes, visited India many times 
over thirty years, and having worked with a high priest and each of us having the 
other as a house guest, I felt close to the community. Then a book came out which 
collected the oral histories of a broad spectrum of Parsis; some highly educated some 
not, some famous others not, about their personal private religious feelings 
(Kreyenbroek with Munshi 2001). It made me realize that with my atheistic atti- 
tude, despite my contacts with many Parsis, I had completely failed to look at the 
widespread belief in the miraculous powers of prayer; the importance of mantras to 
preserve people from misfortune and to bless and aid them in a project, i.e. the reality 
of miracles for many people. I had failed to look for what I don't believe in. 

There is, of course, the alternative danger of being biased in favour of your subject. 
One can normally tell the denomination of a Church historian, or a theologian, from 
his/her writings. Authors rarely draw conclusions at variance with the teaching in 
their denomination. The same can be true of internal accounts of other religions, 
for example Orthodox and Liberal accounts of Judaism. There is often an honourable 
desire when making a university teaching appointment to look for someone who 
knows the tradition from the inside, be (s)he Muslim, Jewish, Sikh, Hindu, etc. Of 
course they can have a depth of insight that is beyond the outsider. But, as with 
Christianity, in principle the appointment should be solely on academic grounds. 
Many of those grounds, e.g. linguistic facility, may well make an insider the right 
appointment. But in recent years there have been difficult cases where such an 
appointee has been summoned to their religious council of elders and reprimanded 
for not teaching a particular perspective. There have been cases where an insider 
from one section of a religion has denied the others were true believers, but were 
heretics. This has happened in Christianity also when in recent years some theolo- 
gians had papal support withdrawn and were not allowed to teach in a Catholic 
institution because they had 'deviated' from authorized Church teaching. There can 
be difficulties with insiders, as well as with outsiders. 

Some time ago a publisher asked me to write a book on Zoroastrianism and the 
Parsis for English schools. It began to be used by Parsis in their Sunday schools and 
in some adult education classes. When the English edition lapsed, the Parsis in 
Bombay reprinted it and still sell it there and in some other centres around the 
world. At first it seemed to be the greatest possible compliment. Gradually however 
I began to worry. When I visited some communities my own words were coming 
back at me. With plant photography one must take great care never to break or 
destroy anything that is being photographed. How much greater care should one take 
with a living religion (especially one that is declining numerically at a great rate)? 
Should you affect the people you study? Can you get too close to your 'field'? Is it 
fanciful to think that you can avoid having an impact? What is the impact of a 
group of students going to a mosque or temple ? Does it change an act of worship if 
there is an 'audience' of outsiders watching? 

Why study religions? 17 

Using the right words 

There are numerous debates about the meaning of key terms such as 'religion', 'cul- 
ture', 'race', etc. This section is not about these important terms (a useful book for 
that is Taylor 1998), but rather it is concerned with terms that raise religious issues. 

The first is to do with translations for key religious concepts. An obvious one is: 
should one write 'Allah', or 'God'? My vocabulary changes according to the audi- 
ence. With Zoroastrians and students I use 'Ahura Mazda' (Pahlavi: Ohrmazd) rather 
than 'God'. The danger is of unconsciously importing Christian notions into the 
concept of the ultimate. However, if talking to the general public or perhaps in a 
lecture that is not essentially about theology the word 'God' may be appropriate, 
otherwise there are so many technical words that the listener (or reader) will switch 
off. But there are some technical words that it is essential to use because their obvious 
equivalent Western term would give a misleading impression. For example the terms 
'spirit and flesh' are inappropriate for the Zoroastrian concepts of menog and getig. 
The menog is the invisible, intangible, the realm of the soul, getig is the visible and 
tangible world, but the getig world is not a subordinate or 'lower' world; it is almost 
the fulfillment of the menog - it is its manifestation. There is nothing of the 
Hellenistic 'spirit and flesh' dualism. A Zoroastrian could never make the connec- 
tion 'the world, the flesh and the devil' for the getig world is the Good Creation of 
Ohrmazd. Misery, disease and death are the assault of the evil force, Ahriman, on 
the Good Creation; human duty is to fight evil and protect the Good Creation so 
that at the renovation menog and getig will come together to form the best of all 
possible worlds. Zoroastrians do not use the term 'the end of the world' for that 
would be Ohrmazd's defeat; instead they refer to the 'renovation', the time when all 
will be restored or refreshed and again becomes perfect as it was before the assault 
of evil. 'Spirit and flesh' therefore involve a different cosmology from menog and getig. 

Sometimes scholars use Christian terms for concepts or practices in order to help 
the reader but it can lead to misrepresentation. For example, Zaehner uses the word 
'sacrament' to describe one of the higher Zoroastrian ceremonies, the Yasna in which 
the haoma (soma in Hinduism) plant is pounded with pestle and mortar. The cere- 
mony is led by two priests and can be performed at a time of death or for blessings. 
Laity may attend but rarely do so for the priests offer it on their behalf. This is 
Zaehner's description of the rite: 

The Haoma ... is not only a plant ... it is also a god, and the son of Ahura 
Mazdah. In the ritual the plant-god is ceremonially pounded in a mortar; the 
god, that is to say is sacrificed and offered up to his heavenly Father. Ideally 
Haoma is both priest and victim — the Son of God, then offering himself up to 
his heavenly Father. After the offering priest and faithful partake of the heav- 
enly drink, and by partaking of it they are made to share in the immortality of 
the god. The sacrament is the earnest of everlasting life which all men will 
inherit in soul and body in the last days. The conception is strikingly similar to 
that of the Catholic Mass. 

(Zaehner 1959: 213) 

Of course the Catholic convert, Zaehner, intended this as a very respectful account 
of the rite. But it bears no resemblance whatever to the Zoroastrian understanding 

18 Why study religions? 

of the ritual. There is a huge danger in failing to see the religion through the insider's 

An earlier writer, J. H. Moulton, is another good example of well-intentioned schol- 
arly misrepresentation of another religion. Moulton was a Professor of New Testament 
Studies but took a keen interest in Zoroastrianism. He was also a Methodist Minister. 
In his Hibbert Lectures in 1912, he applied contemporary Protestant methods of 
Biblical scholarship to the study of Zoroastrianism. He applied the contemporary 
assumption that religions are divided between the priestly or prophetic forms; the for- 
mer being associated with superstition and the latter with visionary, personal religious 
experience. He argued that since Zoroaster was clearly a prophet he could not have 
been a priest, so when Zoroaster refers to himself as a priest (which he explicitly did) 
then Moulton concluded he must have been speaking metaphorically. He concluded: 

That Zarathushtra is teacher and prophet is written large over every page of the 
Gathas [the poetic passages deriving from Zoroaster himself]. He is perpetually 
striving to persuade men of the truth of a great message, obedience to which 
will bring them everlasting life . . . He has a revelation . . . There is no room 
for sacerdotal functions as a really integral part of such a man's gospel; and of 
ritual or spells we hear as little as we expect to hear . . . 

(p. 118) 

A traditional Zoroastrian (or a Catholic Christian for that matter) would not make 
such a distinction between priestly and prophetic religion. These are but two exam- 
ples of a widespread trend to impose Western ways of thinking, or methods of analysis, 
on non- Western phenomena. Misrepresentation does not arise only from prejudice 
against a religion, but can come equally from the well-intentioned scholar. Many 
scholars find it helpful to draw a typology of religions and these can be useful in 
classifying data, but they can also result in trying to fit data into a false dichotomy; 
it has to be 'either this, or that or that', etc. It rarely allows for 'this and that' — in 
Moulton's case either a prophet or a priest, but Zoroaster could be described as 'both 
. . . and'. 

Some of the most common words used in writing about religion are inappropriate 
or at least demand substantial clarification. 'Praying' and 'prayers' are words used in 
many religions, for example, in Christianity and Zoroastrianism. But the activities 
they refer to are somewhat different. In Western Christianity, prayers are in the 
vernacular and it is thought important to know what the words mean. Be the prayers 
intercessions or thanksgiving, there is an element of conversation with God. Prayers 
in Zoroastrianism are rather different. They should be in the ancient 'scriptural' 
Avestan language in which it is believed Zoroaster prayed to Ohrmazd. It does not 
matter if the worshipper does not understand them, indeed orthodox Parsi priests in 
India argue that it is unhelpful to understand the words, for if you do then you think 
about what they mean and thereby limit yourself to mere human conceptual thought. 
By praying in Avestan one seeks to share something of the visionary experience of 
the prophet, the purpose of prayer is to achieve direct experience of Ohrmazd in a 
trance-like state. 

There are numerous terms in common usage which have presuppositions that merit 
questioning. The term 'faith community' implies that 'faith', i.e. a set of beliefs, is 

Why study religions? 19 

what defines a community and that is a Christian and intellectual understanding of 
the 'other'. For Jews and Parsis religion is to do with identity, a question of community 
boundaries, it is to do with who or what you are, something that is in the blood, 
the genes. For Parsis in particular, identity, far more than any set of beliefs, is what 
matters. For Muslims also it is a questionable term, since 'just' believing is inade- 
quate, Islam is a way of life. 

Another term in common usage which can cause religious offence is 'Old Testa- 
ment'. Orthodox Jews object to it for it implies old, redundant, replaced. Most say 
that they have become accustomed to this Christian abuse of their scripture. Their 
preferred term though is 'Hebrew Bible'. The usual Christian reaction is to point out 
that a part (but only a very small part) is in Aramaic. But should students of reli- 
gion use terms and phrases that can cause religious offence? The question becomes 
sharper when the word is used in the naming of university departments, of academic 
societies and books. 


Whether one is religious or not, the study of religions is a key to understanding other 
cultures; religions have been powerful forces throughout history in any country, some- 
times working for good and sometimes working to destroy. They have inspired some 
of the greatest and most noble of acts; equally they have inspired some of the most 
ruthless brutality. They have been the patrons - and the destroyers - of arts and 
cultures. But they are central to much social and political history. Scholars who have 
left religions out of their pictures when writing about various societies, be they Hindus 
in Britain or Muslims in America, are excluding a key element from their study. It 
is essential to know the values, ideals and priorities of those from another culture or 
religion with whom one comes into contact. Globalization makes such contact with 
'the other' common. Religions might be compared to diamonds; they have many facets; 
they can be seen from many angles, but the pictures are too complex for any one writer 
to see the whole. This book looks at a range of approaches to these diamonds. 


Beck, R. 1984, 'Mithraism Since Franz Cumont', in Temporini, H. and Haase, W. (eds), Aufstieg 

und Niedergang der Romischen Welt, II, 17, 4, Berlin: Walter De Gruyter, pp. 2002-115. 
Bhugra, D. 1996, Psychiatry and Religion: Context Consensus and Controversies, London: 

Coward H., Hinnells, J. R. and Williams, R. B. (eds) 2000, The South Asian Religious Diaspora 

in Britain, Canada, and the United States, Albany: State University of New York Press. 
Eck, D. 2000, 'Negotiating Hindu Identities in America', in Coward et al. 2000, pp. 219-37. 

2002, A New Religious America, San Francisco: Harper Collins. 

Fitzgerald, T. 2000, The Ideology of Religious Studies, Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

Ford, D. 1997, The Modern Theologians: An Introduction to Christian Theology in the Twentieth 

Century, Oxford: Blackwells. 
Gustafson, C and Juviler, P. (eds) 1999, Religion and Human Rights: Competing Claims? , New 

York: M. E. Sharpe publishers. 
Haddad, Y. Y. 1991, The Muslims of America, New York: Oxford University Press. 
2000, At Home in the Hijra: South Asian Muslims in the United States', in Coward 

et al. 2000, pp. 239-58. 

20 Why study religions? 

and Lummis, A. T. 1987, Islamic Values in the United States, New York: Oxford University 


Hawley, J. S. (ed.) 1994, Fundamentalism & Gender, New York: Oxford University Press. 
Helman, C. G. 1984 (3rd edn 1994), Culture, Health and Illness, Oxford: Butterworth- 

Hinnells, J. R. 1996, Zoroastrianism and the Parsis, Bombay: Zoroastrian Studies. 

1998, in Hinnells, The New Penguin Handbook of Living Religions, London: Penguin 

Books, pp. 819-47. 

2000, Zoroastrian and Parsi Studies: Selected Works of John R. Hinnells, Aldershot: Ashgate 

publishing (esp. chs 16-18 for this chapter). 

2005, The Zoroastrian Diaspora: Religion and Migration, Oxford: Oxford University 


and Malik, J. (eds), 2006, Islamic Mysticism in the West, Richmond: Curzon Press. 

and Porter, R. (eds) 1999, Religion Health and Suffering, London: Kegan Paul 

Honwana, A. M. 1999, Appeasing the Spirits: Healing Strategies in Post War Southern 

Mozambique', in Hinnells and Porter (eds) 1999, pp. 237-55. 
Howarth, G. and Jupp, P. C. 1996, Contemporary Issues in the Sociology of Death, Dying and 

Disposal, Basingstoke: Macmillan Press. 
Irish, D. P., Lundquist, K. F. and Nelsen, V. J. (eds) 1993, Ethnic Variations in Dying, Death, 

and Grief, Washington D.C.: Taylor & Francis. 
Kreyenbroek, P. with Munshi, Shahnaz N. 2001, Living Zoroastrianism: Urban Parsis Speak 

About Their Religion, Richmond: Curzon Press. 
Law, J. M. (ed.) 1995, Religious Reflections on the Human Body, Bloomington: Indiana University 

Littlewood, R. and Lipsedge, M. 1982 (3rd edn 1997), Aliens and Alienists: Ethnic Minorities 

and Psychiatry, London: Routledge. 
McCutcheon, R. 2001, Critics not Caretakers: Redescribing the Public Study of Religion, Albany: 

State University of New York Press. 
Melton, J. G. 1991, The Encyclopaedia of American Religions, New York: Triumph Books, (3 vols). 
Moulton, J. H. 1913, Early Zoroastrianism, London: Williams and Norgate. 
Naficy, H. 1991, The Poetics and Practice of Iranian Nostalgia in Exile', Diaspora, 1:3, 

pp. 285-302. 
Nesbitt, P. D. (ed.) 2001, Religion and Social Policy, Walnut Creek/Lanham: Altamira Press. 
Rack, P. 1982, Race, Culture and Mental Disorder, London: Tavistock Publications. 
Sahgal, G. and Yuval-Davis, N. (eds) 1992, Refusing Holy Orders: Women and Fundamentalism 

in Britain, London: Virago. 
Spiro, H. M., McCrea Curnen, M. and Wandel, L. P. (eds) 1996, Facing Death: Where Culture 

Religion and Medicine Meet, New Haven: Yale University Press. 
Taylor, M. C. (ed.) 1998, Critical Terms for Religious Studies, Chicago: Chicago University Press. 
Van de Veer, P. 1994, Religious Nationalism: Hindus and Muslims in India, Berkeley: University 

of California Press. 
Van Zandt, D. E. 1991, Living in the Children of God, Princeton: Princeton University Press. 
Warner, R. S. and Wittner, J. G. 1998, Gatherings in Diaspora: Religious Communities and the 

New Immigration, Philadelphia: Temple University Press. 
Williams, R. B. 1988, Religions of Immigrants from India and Pakistan, Cambridge: Cambridge 

University Press. 

2000, 'Trajectories for Further Studies', in Coward et al. 2000, pp. 277-87. 

Zaehner, R. C. 1959, 'Zoroastrianism' in Zaehner, R. C. (ed.), Encyclopaedia of Living Faiths, 

London: Hutchinson Books. 

1966, Hinduism, Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

Chapter 2 

The study of religion in historical 

Eric J. Sharpe 

Motive, material, method 

The academic study of anything requires that those involved should consider at least 
three questions: why, what and how? The first demands that we examine our motive; 
the second makes us consider our material — what do we accept as admissible evidence? 
The third, and most difficult, level of inquiry is concerned with method: how do we 
deal with the material we have at hand? How do we organise it, and with what end 
in view ('motive' again)? A century ago, it was not uncommon to speak in this 
connection of 'the science of religion' (German: Religionswissenschaft) - a form of 
words no longer current in English. What has been identified as the foundation docu- 
ment carried the title Introduction to the Science of Religion (Friedrich Max Miiller 
1873). According to Miiller, such a science of religion was to be 'based on an impar- 
tial and truly scientific comparison of all, or at all events, of the most important 
religions of mankind' (1873: 34). It was, then, to be impartial and scientific by the 
standards of the age and based on the best material available at the time. 

The history of the study of religion since the Enlightenment can never be told in 
full. There is simply too much of it, and it is subdivided in too many ways: by period, 
by geographical and cultural area and by the 'disciplines' cherished by most academics. 
The one history can be described as being made up of many smaller histories — for 
instance the history of the study of everything from Animism and Anabaptism to 
Zoroastrianism and Zen Buddhism. The field may be divided by subject matter; along 
national lines; depending on where in the world the tradition of study has been 
pursued; in relation to events in world and local history; and so on, virtually ad 
infinitum. No one can cover the whole of the area. 

The words 'the study of religion' obviously convey different meanings to different 
people. For most of human history and in most cultures, they would have conveyed 
no meaning at all. To 'study' in the sense of standing back to take a coolly 
uncommitted view of anything, was not unknown in the ancient world, but it was 
uncommon, being cultivated by 'philosophers' - lovers of wisdom - but hardly else- 
where. Similarly, where what we call 'religion' is concerned: gods, goddesses, spirits, 
demons, ghosts and the rest, people knew and generally respected them (along with 
what it was hoped was the right way to please, or at least not to offend them); 'religion' 
they did not. 

These supernatural beings — who were they? In the ancient world, they were envis- 
aged in human terms: a hierarchy reaching all the way from a royal family down 

22 The study of religion in historical perspective 

through nobles and artisans to mischief-makers: imps and demons of the sort who 
spread disease and curdle milk. There were the ghosts of the departed, still in many 
ways close at hand and with their remains buried nearby. (The unburied tended to 
turn into peculiarly nasty ghosts.) Sun, moon and stars watched; storms rampaged; 
forests and mountains brooded; powerful animals marked out their territories. 'Power' 
was perhaps the key to the world as archaic man saw it — power of heat over cold, 
light over darkness, life over death — and those who knew how to control that power 
became themselves powerful. 

The process must have begun at some point in time, somewhere in the world, but 
we have no way of knowing when or where that point might have been (absolute 
origins of anything are always out of reach). When our records, such as they are, 
begin — numerical dates are worse than useless in such matters - we are already able 
to sense the presence of something or someone like a proto-shaman: at one and the 
same time a ruler and a servant of the spirits, a controller of rituals and an inter- 
preter of laws and customs. From what we know of later shamanism, it would seem 
that such persons were servants of their respective societies by virtue of their know- 
ledge of the spirit-world and their ability to establish and maintain contact with it. 
Shamanism 'proper' belongs in the context of hunter-gatherer societies, and as the 
structure of human societies changed, so too did the function of mediation between 
the tangible, everyday world and the unseen forces that were believed to control it. 

The shaman was chosen and prepared for his (or in some cases, her) work, by apti- 
tude, discipline and application, and by initiation — a pattern that survived most tena- 
ciously in the trade guilds and those of the learned professions, which (untypically in 
the modern West) treasured their own past. In more complex societies - that of the 
agriculturalists and fisherfolk in their settled environments, that of the city-dwellers 
within their walls, and so on down to our own day and its bizarre preoccupation with 
economics — the functions of the shaman (serving the people by mediating between 
one order of being and another) have multiplied and diversified in an intriguing way. 

This is not to say that the Pope or the Archbishop of Canterbury, or for that 
matter the Chief Rabbi or the Dalai Lama, or the Shankaracharya of Puri, are crypto- 
shamans: merely that their training on the one hand and their functions on the 
other, are of a kind one recognises. (How well or how indifferently individuals may 
fill high offices has no bearing on the question.) Each has a position in an ongoing 
tradition, and is responsible for its continuation. Here we have the first, and the 
dominant, sense in which what we call 'the study of religion' functions. It is appro- 
priate to call this a discipline in the strictest sense, an apprenticeship in which a pupil 
(discipulus) is taught by a master (magister) inside the bounds of a system, within the 
frontiers of which both knew precisely what was to be taught to whom, and why. 
Since the wellbeing of individuals and societies depended in large measure on the 
maintenance of what it is perfectly proper to call 'law and order' much of what had 
to be learned was concerned with these concepts and their ramifications. 

In many cultures, 'law' (in Sanskrit, dharma, in Hebrew, torah and in Latin, religio, 
even the much misunderstood Australian Aboriginal word 'dreaming') and 'religion' 
are almost synonymous. What one supposes began as habit hardened first into custom 
and eventually into law, on the basis of which boundaries could be set up and wars 
fought. In the ancient world, no one expected laws, or religions, to be all of one kind. 
The 'when in Rome . . .' principle was, and often still is, no more than common sense: 

The study of religion in historical perspective 23 

deities, like humans and animals, were to some extent territorial, and to pay one's 
respects to a genius loci was no more than courtesy. Customs differed in much the same 
way as languages differed, and normally even the learned would know very little of 
what went on outside the family. 'Study' was for the most part concerned only with 
the family's (tribe's, nation's) traditions, history, sacred places and the rituals associ- 
ated with them. In time, as more of this material was committed to writing, the study 
of those writings assumed a central place in the student's apprenticeship: often through 
memorisation and constant repetition and chanting, in a setting in which the student's 
submissive obedience was simply taken for granted. This pattern of education is still 
operative today, though unevenly; generally speaking, Judaism, Islam, the ancient tra- 
ditions of the East - varieties of Hinduism and Buddhism - have held fast to the 
method where instruction in the secular West has not. 

What did the student make of other peoples' traditions, their deities, their rituals 
and their laws? In the ancient world, there were, roughly speaking, three alterna- 
tives: to ignore them altogether (the majority view), to observe them as curiosities, 
without taking them too seriously, and to condemn them as evil. Let us consider the 
second and third of these. 

Greek and Roman 'philosophers' and historians were in many cases intrigued by 
the customs of the various peoples they met around the Mediterranean and as far 
afield as northern Europe. Perhaps they did not take their own national myths and 
rituals too seriously. At all events, the Greek and Roman historiographers, begin- 
ning with Herodotus (died approx. 420 BCE) showed a certain amount of interest in 
other people's behaviour where gods and the like were concerned. Berosus and 
Manetho (both third century BCE) wrote about ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, 
Herodotus having previously written about the Persians. In the second century BCE 
Pausanias compiled an extensive and invaluable account of rituals and places of 
worship in his native Greece. The Romans for their part made fewer contributions, 
though special mention may be made of the accounts of the customs of the Celtic 
and Germanic tribes contained in 'war reports' like Caesar's De hello Gallico and 
Tacitus' Germania. Such writings as these (and there were many more) were compiled 
as information and entertainment, and to some extent propaganda: not as system- 
atic accounts of anything. Tacitus 'studied' Celtic and Germanic tribes because they 
were troublesome to the Roman legions, and that was all. 

The Hebraic attitude to such things could not have been more different. Israel 
knew all about 'the nations' and their deities, and trusted none of them. To the 
extent that other people's religion appears in the Hebrew Scriptures/Old Testament, 
it does so under a black cloud. Egypt and Mesopotamia - oppression. Canaan - apos- 
tasy. Persia - a brief glimpse of light. Rome - more oppression, this time apparently 
terminal, as the Temple was laid waste and the people scattered. Understanding? 
What was there to understand, except that the gods of the nations were impostors, 
small-time crooks, perhaps not without local influence, but entirely incapable of any 
act of creation. Least of all could they create a world, as Yahweh had done. They 
were mere 'idols', man-made and powerless. It is all summed up in two verses, 'For 
all the gods of the peoples are idols; but the Lord made the heavens' (Ps. 96:5); and 
'The gods who did not make the heavens and the earth shall perish from the earth 
and from under the heavens' (Jer. 10:11). 

24 The study of religion in historical perspective 

There was the additional frightening possibility that 'idols' were nests of 'evil 
spirits' — unseen vermin whose existence was never properly explained, but whose 
malevolence no one in the ancient world seriously have doubted. 

We find a partial relaxation of this uncompromising attitude in respect of the 
worship of natural phenomena - sun, moon and stars. These were at least God's 
creations, and not man-made objects, and may therefore be admired for the sake of 
their Creator, to whom ideally they ought to point the way. Human beings, however, 
are incorrigibly obtuse, and go off in pursuit of 'idols' even so. A classical statement 
of this attitude is to be found in Paul's Letter to the Romans (1:20-23): 

Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal 
power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made 
. . . [but to no avail] Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the 
glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals 
or reptiles . . . 

All of this carried over into early Christianity, later Judaism and later still, Islam. 
There is one God, who has created, and will ultimately judge, the world; he has 
made his will known to humanity through his servants the Prophets, though his 
power may be recognised in what he has created. To 'study' in this connection was 
to know and obey the will of God, as set forth in successive writings — historical 
records, prophecies, hymns, statutes and apocalyptic, visionary writings. We have no 
need to enter into further details, except to point out that in Judaism the heart of 
the matter is the Law (Torah) itself, in Christianity the person and work of Jesus 
Christ, and in Islam again the Law, as revealed afresh to Muhammad; in all three 
traditions, the dividing line between truth and falsehood was sharply marked (in 
some modern versions of Judaism and especially Christianity, it has grown less so, 
modernism and Islam meanwhile remaining largely irreconcilable). 

All this stands out in sharp contrast to the spirit of detached inquiry we find in 
Greek philosophy. Where the Classical cultures had philosophers, the Judaeo- 
Christian-Muslim tradition had prophets and their disciples, whose business was less 
to inquire than to obey. The tension between them has been felt repeatedly in 
Western religious and intellectual history, and it is well that we recognise where it 
all began. On the one side there are the conservatives, who love and respect tradi- 
tion and continuity; on the other there are the inquirers, the radicals, the freethinkers 
(or however else fashion may label them). The terminology is constantly changing, 
but today's alternatives would seem to be 'fundamentalist' (meaning conservative) 
and 'pluralist' (which may mean anything, but is obviously anti-fundamentalist). 

What of the Orient in all this? Here we must be brief, but in the Hindu and 
Buddhist traditions, to 'study religion' has always meant to place oneself under spir- 
itual guidance, either by private arrangement with a guru, or as a member of a 
community of monks or nuns. In either case, the disciple's relationship to a guru has 
always been paramount: to be accepted as a disciple, or a novice, is to be prepared 
to show unquestioning obedience to the guru in everything, however trivial or appar- 
ently unreasonable. Not until you have made your submission in faith (Sanskrit: 
shraddha) to a teacher, can you begin to be taught. What is to be taught, it is entirely 

The study of religion in historical perspective 25 

up to the guru to decide. The process of teaching and learning is strictly one-way, 
from the guru to the disciple, whose role is generally limited to the asking of respectful 
questions and absorbing the teacher's answers, either in writing or (more often) by 
memorisation — a method still common enough in our own day, despite repeated 
attempts to discourage it. 

We who live in the age of information, with every conceivable fact instantly avail- 
able to anyone capable of pressing the right computer keys in the right order, find 
it hard to imagine a time when very little was known about our world and its inhab- 
itants, and what little was known, had to be fitted into existing paradigms. At the 
end of the first millennium, the West divided religion into four categories, and only 
four: Christendom, Jewry, Islam and 'paganism' - an omnium gatherum for everything 
that did not sort under the first three. As to the study of religion, one studied within 
the framework of one's own tradition. To be sure, there was a certain curiosity value 
in other people's customs: travellers' tales have never lacked an audience, and 
although the genre invited exaggeration and a concentration on the previously 
unknown and the bizarre, world literature between the fifth and the fifteenth centuries 
(the 'dark ages' of Western culture) was full of fresh information concerning people's 
beliefs and customs, myths and rituals. 

In his fascinating book The Discoverers (1983) Daniel Boorstin wrote that: 

The world we now view from the literate West — the vistas of time, the land 
and the seas, the heavenly bodies and our own bodies, the plants and animals, 
history and human societies past and present — had to be opened for us by 
countless Columbuses .... 

(p. xv) 

Discoveries are not inventions. One discovers what is already there to be discovered; 
one invents what is not already there. Discovery is in a sense the archaeology of 
ideas, the finding afresh of what, somewhere and at some time, was once common 
knowledge but which the world has since forgotten. But having discovered, one has 
to find some way of incorporating the new information into one's existing frames of 
reference. In the Christian West, that meant in practice sorting each new wave of 
information into the categories set forth in the Bible, with occasional footnotes 
supplied by 'the ancients'. There were true and false gods and goddesses; there was 
the sin of idolatry; there were sacrifices offered to 'demons' and various related abom- 
inations. This was the only viable principle of measurement: by reference to the (so 
far) unquestioned and unquestionable data of revelation, as stated in Holy Writ and 
interpreted by the Holy Church. Not until the advent of evolutionary theory toward 
the end of the nineteenth century did the would-be student of religion have an 
alternative method to fall back upon. 

'Discoveries' came thick and fast, once navigation had become a tolerably exact 
business, and exploration by sea (as distinct from the overland treks of antiquity) 
developed. Judaism and Islam were already known, though little understood - in 
Islam's case, against a background of fear fuelled by the Crusades. The Enlightenment 
(German, Aufklarung) was more interested in China and its (apparently) rational 
approach to religion than in alternative monotheism or pagan superstitions. Most of 
the Enlightenment's information about China came directly from the reports of Jesuit 

26 The study of religion in historical perspective 

missionaries, among whom the first was Matteo Ricci (1552—1610), who idealised 
Chinese 'religion' as a system without 'priestcraft' (the bugbear of the Age of Reason), 
but in possession of high moral virtues. At much the same time other Jesuits were writ- 
ing about the indigenous peoples of north America in similar terms; the phrase 'the 
noble savage' seems to have been coined by John Dryden (1631—1700) in his Conquest 
of Granada (1670), the point being that virtue can and does flourish beyond the 
boundaries of Western urban civilisation. The 'noble savage' was (or seemed to be) 
the antithesis of modern urban man — an image which has since proved remarkably 

What manner of religion might 'the noble savage' have known and observed? On 
this point, the unorthodox Western intelligentsia in the seventeenth and especially 
the eighteenth century were of one mind. Ruling out supernatural revelation and its 
(supposed) manifestations as a matter of principle, but retaining a core of belief in 
a divine moral order, there was proposed a system of basic religion, resting on five 
'common notions': that there is a God, a supreme power; that this power is to be 
worshipped; that the good order or disposition of the human faculties is the best part 
of divine worship; that vices and crimes must be eliminated through sorrow and 
repentance; and that there is a future life, in which virtue will be rewarded and vice 
punished. This was 'natural religion', later known as 'deism'. First formulated in the 
early seventeenth century by Lord Herbert of Cherbury (1583-1648) in his De Veritate 
(1624), and restated with variations ever since, 'natural religion' of this kind was 
passionately anti-ecclesiastical and contemptuous of rites and rituals, doctrines and 
dogmas, which it dismissed as 'priestcraft'. Its adherents long found access to faculties 
of theology /divinity practically impossible, but they were able to exercise an indirect 
influence on the study of religion from elsewhere in the academy. 

The nineteenth century 

Betweeen 1801 and 1901 the Western world passed through a time of unprecedented 
intellectual change. At the dawn of the century, Napoleon, having failed to conquer 
Egypt, was on the point of trying to impose his will on Europe; the formality of what 
Tom Paine called 'The Age of Reason' had begun to lose ground to those who valued 
the spontaneous more than the coolly calculated, and the natural more than the 
artificial. The Romantic movement (as it came to be called) left its mark on liter- 
ature, music (where Beethoven and Berlioz were the greatest romantics of all) — and 
on both the practice and the study of religion. It did not begin in 1801. Romanticism 
had been years in the preparation among those for whom the dry categories of order 
for order's sake had no appeal. 

Where the practice of religion in the West was concerned, little in 1801 differed 
greatly from what it had been a century earlier, except perhaps the new factor of 
Protestant revivalism which had begun with the Wesleys in England in the 1730s, and 
which in the nineteenth century was to lead to the Protestant missionary movement, 
and indirectly to the making available of vast quantities of material (of unequal value, 
naturally) for scholars to work on. Otherwise there were Protestants, Catholics and 
freethinkers; outside, there were Jews, Muslims and assorted pagans, about whom little 
was known other than by rumour and hearsay. A massive work like William Hurd's 
New Universal History of the Religious Rites, Ceremonies and Customs of the Whole World 

The study of religion in historical perspective 27 

(1788) is instructive in this regard, representing as it does what the educated but non- 
specialist reader might find of religious interest in the foundation year of the New 
South Wales penal colony. It was not the only compilation of its kind: the putting 
together of encyclopaedias was common enough in the eighteenth century. But it is 
instructive in its concentration on 'rites, ceremonies and customs', on the externals of 
religion in the non-Christian world. Often it was wildly inaccurate, sometimes to the 
modern reader (of whom I suspect I may be the only one) reminiscent of Indiana ] ones 
and the Temple of Doom. In those days the heathen were expected to perform bizarre 
rituals and carry out abominable sacrifices in the name of their idols — the Bible said 
so! What else there might be behind the rituals, very few in the West knew. 

The tide was about to turn, however. China, the West knew after a fashion. Before, 
almost until the end of the eighteenth century, India was a mystery within an enigma 
within a locked box. The Muslim north was known in part. Its official language was 
Persian before it was English; and it was through the medium of Persian that the 
West first gained a limited access to, first, Hindu laws (Halhed, A Code of Gentoo 
Laws, 1776, collected in Sanskrit, translated into Persian, then retranslated into 
English), and later, a number of Upanishads, this time from Sanskrit to Persian to 
Latin. Then in 1 785 there appeared Charles Wilkins' translation of the Bhagavadgita, 
followed four years later by William Jones' translation of Kalidasa's play Sakuntala 
(1789), both this time directly from Sanskrit to English. No 'temple of doom' here. 
Instead, an India heavy with the scent of jasmine and sandalwood and a home, not 
of grotesque ceremonies but of timeless wisdom. 

In the early years of the nineteenth century, while the fearsome figure of Napoleon 
was rampaging around Europe, India was coming to serve Europe and America as a 
landscape of the mind, and an antidote to the crass materialism that had emerged 
in the wake of the industrial revolution. This was not the 'real' India at all, but it 
served its purpose. And when it transpired that there was more to Indian thought 
than caste, cow-worship and suttee, India grasped and held the romantic imagina- 
tion. One thing, however, was lacking: knowledge of Hindusm's most ancient 
scriptures, known collectively as the Veda (meaning knowledge), of which the oldest 
part, a collection of over a thousand ritual texts, was the Rigveda. Long kept secret 
from outsiders, its Sanskrit text was finally published, at the East India Company's 
expense, between 1849 and 1862, under the editorship of a German scholar working 
in Oxford, Friedrich Max Miiller (1823-1900). 

Miiller was a pivotal figure in the study of religion in the West during the second 
half of the nineteenth century. He belonged firmly within the orbit of German 
Romanticism (his father wrote the poems set to music by Schubert as Die schone 
Midlerin and Winterreise) , he was a good friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and is said 
to have been a fine pianist. In religious terms he was (for want of a better word) a 
broad-church liberal Christian. One thing he was not: he was not a Darwinian. 

Between 1801 and 1860 the raw material on which the study of religion is based mul- 
tiplied at an extraordinary rate. What most of all captured the attention of a broader 
public was that involving the 'truth' of the Bible, and especially its chronology. We 
have no need to go into detail, though we may need to remind ourselves that in these 
years (before 1860), the study of religion sorted into two separate compartments: that 
which related to the world of the Bible (Egypt, Mesopotamia, Canaan, Iran, Greece 
and Rome); and that which did not (the rest), with Islam somewhere in between. 

28 The study of religion in historical perspective 

The Victorian anthropologists 

Those who persist in believing 'the Victorian Age' to have been a time of smug self- 
satisfaction in matters of religion, delude themselves. For one thing, it was a very 
long period of time, and little of what was taken for granted in the 1830s still held 
good in 1900. No doubt there were smug and self-satisfied individuals, then as always, 
human nature being what it is. But with regard to religion, the second half of the 
nineteenth century saw practically everything called into question, somewhere, by 
someone. Then, as later, the chief focus of controversy was the word of the Bible: 
was it, or was it not, 'true' and therefore infallible, or at least authoritative? And if 
not, what leg has faith left to stand on? 

On the negative side, some controversialists quite clearly said and wrote what they 
did chiefly to challenge the authority of the Church. The world could not have been 
created as described in Genesis, in 4004 BC. There had never been an Adam and 
Eve, a flood, a parting of the Red Sea. Further on, there had been no Virgin Birth, 
no Resurrection — the existence of Jesus himself was at least doubtful, and so on. 

There was nothing new about this, battles having been fought over precisely this 
territory since the days of Lord Herbert of Cherbury and the deists in the early seven- 
teenth century. But a blanket condemnation of 'miracles' and the supernatural was 
one thing; proposing a plausible alternative was another matter entirely. Before the 
middle years of the nineteenth century, though there was no shortage of fresh 
material, there was no comprehensive method with which to treat it, once one had 
abandoned the hard-and-fast 'truth-versus-falsehood' categories of Christian tradition. 
Evolution filled that gap from the 1880s on. 

Say 'evolution' and one thinks at once of Charles Darwin and his epoch-making 
book On the Origin of Species (1859). Darwin had very little to say directly about 
religion, either for or against (Ellegard 1958). Some of his contemporaries were 
however less cautious. The most widely read of those writing in English was the 
popular philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820-1904), who took Darwin's biological 
theory and made it into a universal explanation of life on earth and its social insti- 
tutions - government, language, literature, science, art and of course religion. All 
these things began with simple forms: homo sapiens had evolved out of something 
prior to and simpler than man (exactly what, no one knew, though the hunt for 
'fossil man' was pursued with diligence); religion had therefore evolved out of some- 
thing cruder than Hymns Ancient and Modern. What that 'something' might be, no 
one could possibly know (Trompf 1990). Conjecture was inevitable. Of the various 
theories put forward in the late nineteenth century, that labelled 'animism' has stood 
the test of time better than most. The term was launched by the Oxford anthro- 
pologist E. B. Tylor, in his important book Primitive Culture (1871), who declared 
that religion began with 'a belief in Spiritual Beings', prompted by reflection on the 
phenomena of dream and death. Suppose that I dream about my father, who died 
in 1957 (I do, as it happens): is that evidence that he is still alive in some other 
order of being? If majorities count, most of the world's population has always believed 
so. There is then at least some reason to inscribe 'animism' on religion's birth certifi- 
cate, as indeed those wanting religion without revelation urged. 

But might there perhaps be some even earlier stage, less explicit than animism? 
Tylor's successor at Oxford, R. R. Marett, thought there was, and called it 'pre- 

The study of religion in historical perspective 29 

animism', without dreams and reflections on the mystery of death, but with a sense 
of the uncanny and of supernatural power (Polynesian/Melanesian mana). Marett's 
book The Threshold of Religion (1909) set out the arguments. 

A quite different attack on the animistic theory came from the Scottish man of 
letters Andrew Lang (1844-1912), who had begun as a classicist and specialist on 
Homer, was for a time a disciple of Tylor, but in the end struck out on his own. 
From his Tylorian years comes his first anthropological book, Custom and Myth 
(1884). Myth, Ritual and Religion (1887) marks a transition, and his mature position 
was stated in The Making of Religion (1898). Lang's final argument was that there 
was no way in which animism was capable of evolving into ethical monotheism. 
Again and again the anthropological evidence had recorded belief in 'high gods' — 
conceptions of a Supreme Being, divine rulers and creators — which the evolution- 
ists had simply chosen to ignore or dismiss as proof of 'the missionaries' tampering 
with the evidence. Lang tried to let the evidence speak for itself. He never claimed 
to have cracked the code, merely that '. . . alongside of their magic, ghosts, worshipful 
stones . . . most of the very most backward races have a very much better God than 
many races a good deal higher in civilisation . . .' (Sharpe 1986: 63). 

Lang was a public figure only in what he wrote. Having resigned his Oxford fellow- 
ship on his marriage, he held no farther academic position, living entirely by his 
pen. His versatility was extraordinary - historian, novelist, minor poet, psychic 
researcher, biographer, translator of Homer: he was sometimes ironical and often 
inaccurate, but never dull. His anthropological investigations were undertaken almost 
in his spare time, though he once confessed that given the opportunity, he might 
have devoted more time to anthropology. As it was, his hints and suggestions proved 
extremely fruitful. When he died in 1912, the Austrian ethnologist Wilhelm Schmidt 
had just published the first volume of his massive work Der Ursprung der Gottesidee 
(in the end twelve volumes in all), in which Lang's 'high gods' were taken very 
seriously indeed. 

Another celebrated Scottish anthropologist to leave his mark on the study of reli- 
gion was James George Frazer (1854-1951), still remembered as the tireless and 
unworldly author of The Golden Bough (1922), a compendium of practically every- 
thing sorting under what was then called 'primitive' religion, including folklore 
(domestic anthropology). For many years now, Frazer has been branded the arche- 
typal 'armchair anthropologist', all of whose material was second-hand, having been 
raked together by casual observers whose motives were variable and whose accuracy 
was open to question. The criticism was justified up to a point, but Frazer did what 
he could to verify his sources, and was well aware of the risks he was running. In 
any case, the task of pulling together the growing bodies of evidence concerning 
archaic and vernacular religions needed to be undertaken by someone. 

Frazer might well have become the first professor of comparative religion in the 
UK. In 1904 he was approached with a view to taking up such a post at the University 
of Manchester, but in the end declined, on the grounds that he was not a fit and 
proper person to instruct young men preparing for the Christian ministry. One 
wonders what might have become of the study of religion at Manchester, had Frazer's 
scruples been overcome! 

30 The study of religion in historical perspective 

The history of religion school 

Between about 1890 and the outbreak of the first world war in 1914, a prominent posi- 
tion in Protestant religious scholarship was occupied by a group of fairly young bibli- 
cal scholars, most of them Germans, known collectively as die Religionsgeschichtliche 
Schule (the history of religion (not 'religions') school). Their leaders were Wilhelm 
Bousset on the New Testament and Hermann Gunkel on the Old Testament side, and 
their chief theorist was Ernst Troeltsch (1865-1923), who, almost alone of the group, 
is still read today, thanks largely to his book Die Absolutheit des Christentums und die 
Religionsgeschichte (1902, belated Eng. tr. The Absoluteness of Christianity and the History 
of Religions, 1971). The principles of the movement were threefold: first, to focus on 
religion rather than on theology; second, to concentrate on popular expressions of reli- 
gion rather than on high-level statements about religon; and thirdly, to examine closely 
the environment of the Old and New Testments, rather than merely treating them as 
the free-floating (and divinely inspired) texts of orthodox tradition. The productivity 
of the young men making up the movement was remarkable, though relatively little 
of their work found its way into English. The trouble was that, like the Deists of the 
seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, they were generally political radicals, socialists 
and populists at a time and in a country where socialism was held to be only one step 
removed from treason. 

To the members of the school, the world or scholarship nevertheless owes a great 
deal, for liberating the study of the Bible from its dogmatic straitjacket, for opening 
up the worlds of 'later Judaism' and the Hellenistic mystery religions, and for demon- 
strating that conspicuous piety is no substitute for sound scholarship where the study 
of religion is concerned. Special mention may be made of their work on the reli- 
gious traditions of ancient Iran, Egypt and Mesopotamia. Iran was important mainly 
because of the towering figure of the prophet Zoroaster/Zarathustra (perhaps c.1200 
BCE), whose teachings seemed to anticipate those of the Judaeo-Christian tradition 
at a number of points, in particular eschatology (death, judgement and the future 
life). Also, there were myriad points of contact between Iran and India. There 
emerged a new label, 'Indo-European', as an alternative to 'Aryan' as a blanket term 
for everything from the languages of north India to those of northern Europe. (The 
sinister overtones of Aryan' as the equivalent of 'non-Jewish' came later.) 

Other advances that were registered toward the end of the nineteenth century in 
the academic study of religion concerned Egypt and Mesopotamia, thanks in both 
cases to the decipherment of what had previously been unreadable scripts, hiero- 
glyphic and cuneiform respectively. We cannot go into details, but in both cases 
sober history and wild surmise combined. In Egypt's case, speculation went all the 
way from the bizarre theories of the Mormons (invented before the hieroglyphs had 
been deciphered) to the Egyptian origins of monotheism, which Sigmund Freud wrote 
about and may even have believed in, and the universal diffusionism of the Australian 
Grafton Elliot Smith, which claimed Egypt as the cradle of the whole of western 
civilisation. A controversial expression of what came to be called 'pan-Babylonism' 
was a series of lectures on 'Babylon and the Bible' (Babel und Bibel), delivered in 
Berlin by Friedrich Delitzsch in 1902-5, which claimed that everything of value in 
the Old Testament was copied from Babylonian sources - the creation and flood 
narratives, the Sabbath, the notion of sin and much more. 

The study of religion in historical perspective 3 I 

The 'father' of the history of religion school (as distinct from its propagandists) 
had been the great historian Adolf (von) Harnack (1851-1930). In 1901 Harnack, 
also lecturing in Berlin, had argued against the widening of the theological curriculum 
to include non-biblical religions, chiefly on the grounds that the result would be 
dilettantism and superficiality. If comparative religion were to be taught at the univer- 
sities, it should be in faculties of arts/humanities, and not under the aegis of theology. 
(Eventually, this was more or less what happened.) A somewhat different point of 
view was that of the Swedish scholar Nathan Soderblom (1866-1931), who argued 
in his Uppsala inaugural lecture of 1901 that there should be no artificial barrier 
between biblical religion and the rest, and that comparative religion (religionshistoria) 
should be an essential part of the theological curriculum. Three years later compar- 
ative religion in fact became an integral though subordinate part of the theological 
programme of the University of Manchester. 

The trouble, though, was that often, the advocates of Religionsgeschichte (compar- 
ative religion) were at best indifferent and at worst hostile to theology as the churches 
understood it and the faculties taught it. And of course vice versa. Hence in most 
universities the study of 'other religions' came to be scattered around departments 
of history, anthropology, classics, Semitic studies and the like, and kept separate 
from theology. So it remained until the onset of 'the religious studies movement' in 
the 1960s. 

Psychology and the mystics 

The years around the turn of the nineteenth to twentieth century saw the emer- 
gence of many new 'sciences', among them 'the science of religion'. Within that 
science there were soon sub-sciences, of which the psychology of religion and the 
sociology of religion were the most significant. If two books were to be picked out 
as foundation documents of these sub-sciences, they might well be William James' 
The Varieties of Religious Experience (1977) on the psychological side, and Emile 
Durkheim's The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1915) on the sociological, 
though neither marks an absolute beginning. The difference between them is easily 
stated. Whereas the psychology of religion was, to begin with, concerned only with 
the individual's mental processes as they relate to religion, the sociology of religion 
saw (and still sees) religion as a collective, social phenomenon. 

In both cases the formative years were the 1890s. This has nothing to do with 
the character of religion itself, which has always involved individuals and societies 
in equal measure. In psychology's case, the initial question concerned the mecha- 
nism by which the individual comes to experience sensations and feelings that he 
or she identifies as supernatural, and the consequences to which this may lead. The 
old alternatives had been divine inspiration on the one hand, and demonic decep- 
tion on the other (speaking here in Judaeo-Christian terms). But suppose there were 
nothing supernatural involved. What then? 

Interestingly enough, a number of the first psychologists of religion were Americans. 
Religious individualism was endemic in nineteenth-century America, especially 
among the heirs of the Enlightenment, such as Emerson and the New England 
Transcendentalists. 'Individualism . . . was common enough in the Europe of the 

32 The study of religion in historical perspective 

nineteenth century; in America, it was part of the very air men breathed' (Nisbet 1965: 
4)- This was due in part to the importance of the individual 'conversion experience' 
as the major criterion by which the genuineness of religion was judged. Sectarian 
extremism was also common, some parts of America even coming to resemble a 
menagerie of frequently warring sects. Add to this the impact of phenomena as diverse 
as exploration, industrialisation, migration, half-understood Darwinism and not least 
the Civil War, and it is not hard to grasp the fascinated energy with which intellec- 
tuals tackled religious questions. Here an important book was Andrew Dickson White's 
A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1955). White, the first 
President of Cornell University, was writing too early to incorporate psychology into 
his account; he was not irreligious, but was passionately opposed to the imposition of 
'theological' limits on free enquiry. 

The first psychologists of religion in America are all but forgotten today — Granville 
Stanley Hall, James H. Leuba and Edwin D. Starbuck among them. Starbuck is worth 
a special mention as the first to work with questionnaires as a means of gathering 
material. How do you find out what people experience as 'religion'? Simple: ask them! 
The results of his enquiries took shape in his book The Psychology of Religion (1899). 
Starbuck also taught a course in the psychology of religion at Harvard in 1894—5. The 
major emphasis of his questionnaires was on 'religious experience' in general, and the 
experience of conversion in particular. The method as such was deeply flawed, but 
won approval as a means of breaking away from the crude choice between divine 
inspiration and demonic deception as explanations of 'the conversion experience'. 

Starbuck's material was used (and duly acknowledged) by his Harvard teacher 
William James in preparation for the lectures delivered in Scotland and published 
in 1977 as The Varieties of Religious Experience - one of the few religious classics of 
the twentieth century. William James, (1842-1910), the elder brother of the novelist 
Henry James, came of Swedenborgian stock, though his personal religion was an 
undogmatic theism. He trained as a doctor, but never practised medicine. Then he 
became fascinated by the infant science of psychology, and for years worked on his 
one and only book, The Principles of Psychology (1890) - all his later publications 
were tidied-up lectures, Varieties being his unquestioned masterpiece. 

James was writing (or rather, speaking) as what he called a 'radical empiricist', a 
pragmatist who was convinced that where religion was concerned, judgement is 
possible only on a basis of the results to which it leads — religion is what religion 
does, not what it claims to be able to do. He drew a famous distinction between two 
religious temperaments: that of the 'healthy-minded' — positive, optimistic, relatively 
unconcerned with the problem of evil — and that of 'the sick soul' — obsessed with 
the sense of its own unworthiness, inadequacy and (in Christian terms) sin. 'Let 
sanguine healthymindedness do its best with its strange power of living in the moment 
and ignoring and forgetting, still the evil background is really there to be thought 
of, and the skull will grin in at the banquet' (James 1977: 140). 

James also anticipated in Varieties what in the 1960s was to become one of the 
bugbears of the study of religion, by introducing the subject of artificially induced 
'religious' experience through drugs, even going so far as to experiment himself with 
nitrous oxide ('laughing gas') and to suggest that if there should be supernatural 
revelation, the 'neurotic' temperament might be better able to receive it than the 

The study of religion in historical perspective 33 

There were major flaws in James' approach to his subject, and this may be the 
time to mention them briefly. One was entirely deliberate, namely, his exclusion of 
religion's social dimension from his inquiry: 'religion' he limited to 'the feelings, acts, 
and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend them- 
selves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine' (James 1977: 
31). How far individuals feel, act and experience because of the environment in 
which they live, with all its precedents, images, taboos, expectations and the rest, 
he does not discuss. More important was the assumption, shared by all those who 
have ever used questionnaire material, that the individual actually knows, fully 
consciously, what he or she believes and why — and this is not always safe, as Freud 
and Jung were shortly to show. 

Lectures XVI and XVII in Varieties, James devoted to the subject of 'Mysticism', 
which we might perhaps characterise as religious experience at its most intensive. 
Wisely, he did not attempt to define this notoriously slippery word, but identified 
'ineffability', 'noetic quality' (the quality of self-authenticating knowledge), 'tran- 
siency' and 'passivity' as a 'mystical group' of states of consciousness (James 1977: 
380—2). Whether mysticism is therefore to be welcomed or avoided had long been 
disputed territory. Mystik had long been regarded by theologians (especially those of 
the Catholic tradition) as something entirely positive, a mark of divine favour; 
Mysticismus was the word used by German-speaking rationalists to denote irrationality 
and delusion in religion, in practically the same sense as 'enthusiasm'. The English 
language was in the unfortunate position of having only one word to cover both 
senses. Either way, 'mysticism' came in the years around the turn of the century to 
serve as a catch-all term for all that sorted under the categories of visions, voices, 
trances and what today we call 'altered states of consciousness'; but also to label reli- 
gious intensity. At the back of all this was what was the mystic's desire to achieve 
oneness with the Ultimate Reality — or alternatively, a mental disorder of some kind, 
depending on one's presuppositions. 

One cannot 'study' mystics, except to the extent that they are prepared to write or 
speak about their experiences. There was however no lack of such material, and begin- 
ning in the years around the turn of the century there appeared a number of significant 
works on the subject. The first of these was W. R. Inge's Christian Mysticism (1899), 
followed by, among others, James' Varieties, Nathan Soderblom's Uppenbarelsereligion 
(The Religion of Revelation, 1903, which drew the important distinction between theis- 
tic and non-theistic expressions of religious faith), Friedrich von Hiigel's massive The 
Mystical Element of Religion (1908), Rufus Jones' Studies in Mystical Religion (1909) and 
Evelyn Underbill's Mysticism (1940). At the end of this line we may perhaps place 
J. B. Pratt's The Religious Consciousness (1920). It is perhaps worth noting that the last 
four authors mentioned were Roman Catholic, Quaker, uneasy Anglican and Unitarian 
respectively: clearly religious experience bore no particular relation to Christian denom- 
inationalism. Pratt's horizon was however wider: he had a lively interest in India, writ- 
ing with regard to Buddhism that he had '. . . tried to enable the reader to understand 
a little how it feels to be a Buddhist' (Sharpe 1986: 115f. emphasis in original). 

It was slightly ironical that Pratt's book should have been called The Religious 
Consciousness, since by the time it appeared, Freud, Jung and their respective bands 
of followers had most effectively called in question the very idea of consciousness as 
a decisive factor in human conduct. The new psychologists, wrote Sir John Adams 

34 The study of religion in historical perspective 

in 1929, '. . . know exactly what they want and are quite clear about the way they 
propose to attain it. There is a lion in their path; they want that lion killed and 
decently buried. This lion is Consciousness . . .' (Sharpe 1986: 197). The Freudians, 
the Jungians and the rest of the psychoanalytical establishment did not pretend to 
scholarship in the area of religion, and some of their ventures into the field were 
quite bizarre; their profession was medicine, after all. But whereas Freud and his 
followers treated religion as part of the problem where mental health was concerned, 
the Jungians took a more positive view of religious mythology and symbolism. The 
psychoanalytical cause became fashionable in the years following the insanity of the 
First World War, not least in America, and cast a long shadow. 

As an example, we may quote the case of the American anthropologist Margaret 
Mead (1902-1978), author of the celebrated Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), which 
proved, entirely to its author's satisfaction, that adolescence can be practically pain- 
free, once the sexual restraints imposed by society have been relaxed. Mead was 
a protegee of Franz Boas, a determined Freudian. Margaret Mead was no more 
than 23 when she did the field-work on which her book was based, and many years 
later one of her chief Samoan informants confessed that the girls who had supplied 
her with material had been pulling her leg (Freeman 1983). It did not matter. Her 
teacher Franz Boas wrote that: 'The results of her painstaking investigation confirm 
the suspicion long held by anthropologists, that much of what we ascribe to human 
nature is no more than a reaction to the restraints put upon us by civilisation' 
(Mead 1928: viii). 'Field-work' was of the essence, no matter how poorly equipped 
the investigator — an attitude which passed in the course of time to the study of 

Psychoanalysis aside, other issues divided students of religion in the early years of 
the twentieth century. Another relatively new science was the science of sociology 
— collective, rather than individual human behaviour. A key concept in this connec- 
tion was 'holiness/sacredness' (the adjectives 'sacred' and 'holy' are generally 
interchangeable; 'the sacred' and 'the holy' are on the other hand abstractions). 

There were two alternatives: on the psychological (and often the theological) side, 
what was up for investigation was 'what the individual does with his/her own soli- 
tariness'; on the sociological side, what communities do under the heading of 
'religion'. At the time when William James was most influential, there was a strong 
current of thought flowing in precisely the opposite direction: toward the assessment 
of religion's social functions, past and present. Out of the second of these there 
emerged the sociology of religion, which over the years was to assume a more and more 
dominant role as an academic sub-discipline. 

One can do sociology in two different but connected ways. First, as an evolu- 
tionary science. Although Darwin was first and foremost a biologist, it was not long 
before his admirers applied the evolutionary model to (among much else) the devel- 
opment of human societies. Here the prophetic voice was that of the popular 
philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820-1904), whose First Principles (1862) argued that 
'the law of organic evolution is the law of all evolution' in every field of human 
activity, and not just in biology: 'this same advance from the simple to the complex, 
through successive differentiations, holds uniformly' (Spencer 1862: 148). Spencer 
held that the simplest, and therefore the earliest, form of religion had been the 
worship (or at least fear) of the dead, especially those who had been powerful during 

The study of religion in historical perspective 35 

their lifetimes: 'The rudimentary form of all religion is the propitiation of dead ances- 
tors . . .' (Spencer 1901). This 'ghost theory' (as it came to be called) has the merit 
of sometimes being at least partly true. Examples are not hard to come by. But it 
leaves out too much to serve as a general theory of the origin of religion. 

Shortly before Spencer's death, there had been published a centenary edition of an 
influential book by the German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), 
(Jber die Religion: Reden an die Gebildeten unter ihren Verachtern (1799; Eng. tr. On 
Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers, 1893). It was important on two counts: 
first, because it argued that the only way to study religion adequately is not in terms 
of the bloodless intellectual abstractions of 'natural religion' (which is in actual fact 
neither natural nor religion), but in and through the religious beliefs and practices of 
actual living human beings — a point made many years earlier by Charles de Brosses, 
but taken insufficiently seriously since. And second, because to Schleiermacher, the 
heart of religion was to be found, not in rules and regulations, hierarchies, hassocks 
and hymnbooks, but in the individual's experience of (or sense of) and dependence 
upon a power infinitely greater than his own. The reissue of Schleiermacher's Uber die 
Religion in 1899 could not have come at a more opportune moment. Darwinism was 
all very well; the rule of law was an efficient sergeant-major in an unruly world, but 
left little room for creative individuality. It was however Schleiermacher's editor 
who made the greater long-term impression. 

Rudolf Otto (1869-1937) was a philosopher and theologian by training and 
temperament, with Indology as another area of interest and expertise. Today however 
he tends to be remembered for only one book, Das Heilige (1917; Eng. tr. The Idea 
of the Holy, 1923), which argued that what is essential in religion is the individual's 
experience of 'the holy', even at one point requesting that the reader who has had 
no such experience to read no further! But experience of what, precisely? Trying to 
explain, Otto coined the word 'numinous' (das Numinose), a sense of the presence 
of a numen (deity, supernatural being). This in its turn gives rise to a perception, or 
apprehension, of a mysterium which is both tremendum (scary) and fascinans 

The words 'holy' and 'sacred' are adjectives, which need to be related to someone 
or something if they are to make sense, and are not easily turned into nouns ('holy 
scripture', 'holy mountain', 'holy day', 'sacred cow', 'sacred site' make sense as the 
abstract nouns 'the holy' and 'the sacred' do not. 

A few years before the appearance of Otto's book there appeared in France Emile 
Durkheim's Les Formes Elementaires de la Vie Religieuse (1912; Eng. tr. The Elementary 
Forms of the Religious Life, 1915). Here we have the opposite argument: that (put 
crudely) religion is a social phenomenon, resting not on the individual's feeling- 
states but on the needs of the community. Families, tribes and nations set up symbols 
of their own collective identity — from totem poles to national flags — which are 
'sacred' through their associations. 

On this view, every human community invents its own sacred symbols. The super- 
natural does not enter into it, the closest approximation being 'power' (the 
Melanesian/Polynesian mana and similar power-words, which Durkheim mistakenly 
believed to be impersonal, but which always turn out to be associated with spiritual 
beings who possess them). It is therefore the community which decrees what is, and 
what is not, 'sacred' in its own cultural terms. 

36 The study of religion in historical perspective 

The phenomenology of religion 

Between the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 and the end of the second 
in 1945, the study of religion in the West became fragmented. The old idealism had 
been shattered in the trenches of the battlefield, and in 1920, religion itself, let alone 
the study of religion, seemed to have no future worth speaking of. On the Christian 
theological front, the tradition of scholarship was maintained by a very few idealists 
in the face of growing opposition from the disciples of Karl Barth, Emil Brunner and 
the other 'dialectical' theologians, in whose eyes 'religion' was as dust and ashes 
compared to the Gospel, and who declined to study it further. The conservatives 
were what they had always been: intent on doing battle with 'the world' on as many 
fronts as possible. Meanwhile, the anthropologists, Orientalists, philologists and the 
rest cultivated their respective gardens. 

Comparative religion had been trying to compare religions as totalities, as systems, 
as competing solutions of the world's problems. This was unsound. Religions are total- 
ities only in the pages of textbooks, and what believers actually believe, and how 
they believe, may bear little resemblance to what they are supposed to believe and 
do. The student, intent on examining religions and writing their histories, was faced 
with an impossible task. One alternative was to divide the field functionally, by 
themes and characteristics, and to attempt on that basis limited comparisons: prayer 
with prayer, sacrifice with sacrifice, images of deity with images of deity. In all this 
it was important to examine, not what the textbooks say, but what is actually there 
to be observed, the phenomena involved in the business of religion. The point had 
been made by Charles de Brasses in the 1760s and by Friedrich Schleiermacher in 
1799: that the student of religion must concentrate, not on what people might do, 
ought to do or what the textbooks say they are supposed to do, but on what they 
actually do, and the ways in which they actually behave. But people do, and have 
done, so many things. How can anyone grasp the field as a whole? 

It was with an eye to resolving this difficulty that the term 'the phenomenology 
of religion' was pressed into service. As we have said, limited comparisons were 
still possible, provided that they were based on either reliable information or careful 
observation. However, in the early years of the twentieth century, 'phenomenology' 
acquired another set of meanings, having to do less with the material than the 
mind-set of the observer. The name of the philosopher Edmund Husserl is often 
mentioned in this connection, though his contribution to the study of religion was 
at best indirect. 'Philosophical' phenomenology aimed at the elimination of sub- 
jectivity (and hence dogmatic bias) from the inquirer's process of thought. As 
such, the ideal was and is unattainable, and it was unfortunate that for a time 
in the 1970s, a few phenomenological catch-words (epoche, the suspension of judg- 
ment, and eidetic vision, the gift of seeing things as wholes, as well as 'phenomenology' 
itself) found their way into the vocabulary of the study of religion. In the inter-war 
years, the trend was best represented by the Dutch scholar Gerardus van der Leeuw 
(1890-1950), author of Phdnomenologie der Religion (1933; Eng. tr. Religion in Essence 
and Manifestation, 1938). 

Practically all the first phenomenologists of religion were Protestant Christian 
theologians — Chantepie de la Saussaye, Nathan Soderblom, Rudolf Otto, Edvard 
Lehmann, William Brede Kristensen ('. . . there exists no other religious reality than 
the faith of the believers . . .') and C. Jouco Bleeker. An exception was the enigmatic 

The study of religion in historical perspective 37 

German scholar Friedrich Heiler, whose chaotic book Erscheinungsformen und Wesen 
der Religion (1961) rounded off the series. In all these cases, phenomenology was a 
religious as much as a scholarly exercise. Those making up the between-the-wars 
generation of scholars we now call phenomenologists were deeply committed to the 
principle that the causes of sound learning and sound religion were not two causes, 
but one. The enemies of sound learning were all too often captive to unsound reli- 
gion — unsound because (among other things) unhistorical and therefore almost 
inevitably authoritarian. Faced with such a configuration, one may distance oneself 
altogether from religious praxis; or one may try to bring the religious community 
(that is, the faculties of theology) round to one's way of thinking. Most opted for 
the first of these alternatives; the very few who chose the latter, though they won 
a few battles, ultimately lost the war — not because of the innate superiority of theo- 
logical thinking, but due to the corrosive influence of secularisation on religious 
thought in general. 

Tools of the trade 

Over the past century or so, the study of religion has gradually acquired an exten- 
sive body of reference material for the use of students. The idea that it might be 
possible to bring together all the world's knowledge and publish it in encyclopaedia 
form belongs to the Enlightenment. Today we are more modest, but the genre has 
survived. As far as religion is concerned, an important landmark was James Hastings' 
Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics (1908-26); in German, there was Die Religion in 
Geschichte und Gegenwart (1909-13), a fourth edition is currently in preparation. The 
Encyclopedia of Religion (16 vols, edited by Mircea Eliade) appeared in the US in 
1987. Given the new situation created by the Internet, it is unlikely that there will 
be any more. 

Compact dictionaries and handbooks are by now legion, as are 'world religions' 
textbooks for student use. Special mention may be made of The New Penguin 
Dictionary of Religions (1997) and The New Handbook of Living Religions (1998), both 
edited by John R. Hinnells. On the textbook front, Ninian Smart's The World's 
Religions (1989, an updated version of a book first published in 1969 as The Religious 
Experience of Mankind) has proved an excellent gradus ad parnassum for generations 
of religious studies students. 

Concerning scholarly journals, we must be brief. They have never been other than 
variable in quality, and though these days every effort is made to guard professional 
standards, the level of readability is often depressingly low. There is the additional 
factor that the fragmentation of the study of religion in recent years has resulted in 
more and more specialist journals, which can only be read with profit by fellow 
specialists. Among the best 'general' journals in English are Religion (UK/US), journal 
of the American Academy of Religion (US), journal of Religion (US) and Numen (inter- 

Congresses, conferences, consultations 

In 1993 there was celebrated the centenary of the Chicago 'World's Parliament of 
Religions', though this time relabelled 'Parliament of World Religions' - a shift in 

38 The study of religion in historical perspective 

meaning no one bothered to examine at all closely. Both were propaganda exercises, 
but for different causes: 1893 for religious oneness (monism), 1993 for religious diver- 
sity (pluralism). There would be little point in listing even a selection of the myriad 
conferences, congresses and consultations that have punctuated the years between, 
increasingly frequently since the advent of air travel in the 1960s. Opinions differ 
as to their importance, though it is probably true to say that the best are the smallest 
(the most satisfying conference I have ever attended numbered no more than thirty- 
five or so participants). It would however be churlish to deny their social function 
or the opportunity they provide for younger voices to make themselves heard among 
their peers. 

Developments since the 1960s 

In the immediate post-war years, where religion was studied seriously, the pattern 
was still largely that of the earlier part of the century. There was still the same broad 
alternative that there had been all century: most of those committed to the study 
of religion were equally committed to the community sponsoring it. Theology/ 
divinity, in one or another form, was still dominant; independent studies were few 
and far between, and 'comparative religion' remained, as far as the West was 
concerned, something of a playground for liberal eccentrics. The world political scene 
was dominated by the threats and posturings of the 'Cold War', in which context it 
no longer seemed far-fetched to hope that the great world religions might some day 
make common cause against the common enemy of 'godless communism'; and by 
rapid decolonisation, beginning with India/Pakistan/Sri Lanka immediately after the 
war and sweeping through most of Africa (except, for the time being, the far south) 
soon thereafter. The Chinese Cultural Revolution, the Korean and Vietnam wars — 
these and many smaller conflicts all left their mark, even on such apparently arcane 
subjects as the study of religion. The creation of the State of Israel, and waves of 
Arab-Israeli conflict, left wounds which still today have not healed. The dismal record 
might be prolonged. 

The consequences for the study of religion were profound, and lasting. Still in the 
1950s it was simply taken for granted that religion was 'all about words', and since 
these had been written in a vast variety of languages, many of them no longer spoken, 
the student's first duty was to become as much of a philologist as possible in the 
time available, with a view to reading ancient texts 'in the original'. (Pre-literate 
societies were generally left to the anthropologists to deal with on their own func- 
tional terms.) Latin and perhaps Greek had been learned in secondary school; 
Hebrew, Arabic, Sanskrit, Pali, Mandarin and Japanese had not. The principle, 
however, still stood. The inevitable outcome was that the study of religion remained 
a sub-department of the study of (for the most part ancient) history, with a little 
philosophy added for good measure. 

The times, however, were a-changing, and between 1960 and 1970 all these 
assumptions had been challenged. Certainly old style studies survived, for the time 
being, but the historical-philological approach was suffering greatly from the atten- 
tions, not of scholars, but of politicians and administrators (and their paymasters) 
whose sights were set at a different level, philology became problematical, as language 
teaching at the secondary level declined; 'history' even more so. The so-called 'educa- 

The study of religion in historical perspective 39 

tional' reforms which began in the 1960s in the West played their part. Most 
important, however, was the reading of the place of religion in history that emerged 
in the mid-to-late 1960s. 

It is impossible in this connection to overlook the impact of the Second Vatican 
Council (1962-5), not only on the Roman Catholic Church, but on the whole of 
world Christianity. Vatican II (Second Vatican Council), in a manner of speaking, 
launched the idea of inter-religious dialogue on a poorly prepared world. A concept 
had found its kairos. Within a very few years, it became axiomatic that the study of 
religion could only justify itself on 'dialogical' principles — the assumption of course 
being that religion is far more than an aspect of ancient history. Once, it had been 
self-evident that the Western-trained historian should have the last word in all 
matters of importance. This was no longer as obvious as it had once been. 

The reassessment began in the 1950s. An early expression was a little book by 
Huston Smith, The Religions of Man (1964), which expressed the hope that history 
might remember 'our years' '. . . not for the release of nuclear power nor the spread 
of Communism but as the time in which all the peoples of the world first had to 
take one another seriously' (Smith 1964). An important part of the 'taking seriously' 
process was the new readiness on the part of Western scholars to listen to the voices 
of people of other faiths explaining what they believed and why. Earlier this process 
had been haphazard, though the Chicago World's Parliament of Religions in 1893 
had established the principle, and exotics like Radhakrishnan and Suzuki had 
continued the mission. The day of the vernacular (primitive, primal, pre-literate) 
religions, on the other hand, had still not dawned. 

As to the object of the exercise, some controversy was caused when in 1958 the 
German scholar Friedrich Heiler, a passionate internationalist, declared at an inter- 
national conference in Tokyo that the only worthy objective of the study of religion 
was 'true tolerance and co-operation on behalf of mankind' (Sharpe 1986: 272). For 
a number of years thereafter, the question of the 'pure versus applied' alternatives in 
the study of religion tended to dominate professional discussion. Although a mere 
recital of names would serve no purpose, the 'pure' camp was for the most part made 
up of classically trained historians and philologists, whose chief concerns were with 
history - and fairly remote history at that. In these circles, 'objectivity', in the sense 
of single-minded concentration on one's object of study (usually a text), was still an 
attainable ideal, and was contrasted with 'speculative' philosophy on the one hand, 
and with dogmatic theology on the other. This was scarcely a new point of view: 
rather it was the remnant of an old debate, prodded into life once more. 'Pure' schol- 
arship could see no value in the study of religion unless it contributed directly to a 
better understanding among the nations. 

Beginning in the mid-1960s, the ideal of scholarly objectivity began to be frozen 
out of the day-to-day study of religion. New words were coined, among them 'post- 
colonial' and 'post-modern', neither of which carried any very precise meaning, but 
both of which marked out a new territory. 'Deconstruction' was another neologism. 
All indicated extreme impatience with the intellectual and ideological past, with a 
history most of its advocates took little trouble to understand, and with every last 
form of idealism. 

A forum for discussions of this order was provided by the new departments of 
(usually) religious studies that were founded between the late 1960s and the late 

40 The study of religion in historical perspective 

1970s. (Some tertiary institutions opted for other forms of words, 'religion studies', 
'studies in religion' or whatever; a few retained the time-honoured 'comparative reli- 
gion'.) Before the 1960s, despite the West's multifarious colonial involvements, little 
notice had been taken of what 'the natives' believed or did, and why; comparative 
religion had always been a Cinderella subject in faculties of theology/divinity. But in 
the new post-war climate of opinion, it was decided that religion and it structures 
and functions world-wide, being far too important a matter to be left to the churches, 
was to be an object of study. By common consent, the pioneer department of reli- 
gious studies was that founded at the University of Lancaster in 1967. Many others 
followed, the University of Sydney not until 1977, the University of Troms0 in 
Norway not before 1993. An important point was that the study of religion at univer- 
sity level should be entirely free from church (or other) sponsorship and control. 
There were to be no more heresy trials; every expression of religion was in principle 
open to investigation: there was to be no proselytism. As far as was humanly possible, 
every manifestation of religion was to be treated with 'sympathy' and 'understanding'. 

Given these excellent principles, it was unfortunate that the one religious tradi- 
tion frequently denied a fair hearing was . . . Christianity. Disillusion reached a new 
pitch of intensity during the 1960s; the Vietnam war was one obvious cause, post- 
colonial guilt was another, sexual (or gender) politics yet another. So it was that 
when the so-called 'new religious movements' (NRMs) in the vernacular, 'sects' 
or 'cults' - Transcendental Meditation (TM), International Society of Krishna 
Consciousness (ISKCON), the Unification Church and the rest - began to appear 
in the mid-to-late 1960s, they enjoyed immediate and in some cases lasting success. 

The NRMs were extremely diverse in origin: some had their roots in the Hindu 
tradition (TM, ISKCON), others in Buddhism, one in Korean Shamanism (the 
'Moonies'), others again in fringe Christianity (the Children of God). What all had 
in common was their clientele and their basis in charismatic leadership. The old 
faculties of divinity/theology would have taken no notice of them: the new depart- 
ments of religious studies quickly incorporated them into their curricula, as exercises 
in sociology, psychology — and in some cases, participant observation free from the 
discomfort that frequently attends fieldwork. 

Religious studies and phenomenology 

The post-war situation was one in which old patterns of belief and behaviour were 
being questioned and reshaped. The demise of colonialism had created a new inter- 
national, intercultural and interreligious community, by no means 'one nation' but 
at least a world in which a degree of tolerance of one another's religious idiosyn- 
cracies was a high priority. The sectarian squabbles and polemics of the past had, 
it was hoped, been laid to rest once and for all. There was a large element of 
left- leaning politics in what emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Its chief 
ingredient was dogmatic egalitarianism: privilege based on accidents of birth is unac- 
ceptable, and no one can claim as a privilege what is not in principle open to 
everyone as a right. Religion, with all its hierarchies, resources, ranks and exclusivity, 
was an obvious target, as it had been since the Enlightenment. Christianity was an 
even more obvious target, given its place in Western, 'colonialist' and capitalist 

The study of religion in historical perspective 41 

Other factors contributed. The Roman Catholics' Second Vatican Council (1962-5) 
had embraced the principles of religious freedom (Dignitatis Humanae) and improved 
inter-religious relations (Ad Gentes, Nostra Aetate), chiefly in the hope of righting the 
wrongs of anti-Semitism, but with far wider implications. Instead of confrontation, as 
in the past, 'dialogue' was now the order of the day, and inevitable, this gave a great 
boost to the intercultural study of religion. For some years, the incidence of ex-priests 
and ex-nuns in religious education (further impelled to move on by the 'anti-abortion, 
anti-contraception' decrees of the late 1960s) became unusually high. 

Methods and methodologies 

In recent years it has become more and more common for sessions, sections and 
sometimes whole conferences to be devoted to 'problems of method in the study of 
religion', the third of the Ms we mentioned at the outset. This in itself is evidence 
of widespread uncertainty in the field consequent on the erosion of old intellectual 
assumptions. The most successful of those known to the present writer was that held 
in Turku/Abo, Finland, in August 1973. Others have been notably less worthwhile, 
though there would be little point in identifying them. A frequently recurring topic 
of late has been the age-old tension between theological and non-theological ways 
of studying religion, which seems no closer to a resolution now than it was a century 
ago. In 1996 I was privileged to be asked to present a 'position paper' on this subject 
to the American Academy of Religion. Poor health prevented me from attending, 
but my paper was duly discussed. In it, I am afraid that I quoted Omar Khayyam: 

Myself when young did eagerly frequent 
Doctor and Saint, and heard great Argument 
About it and about: but evermore 
Came out by the same Door as in I went. 

(Song 27) 

'Methods,' wrote Ake Hultkrantz some years ago, 'are the crutches of science'. The 
healthy have no need of them; the busy have little time for them. There is a danger 
that the 'second-order' student may spend so much time studying other people's 
methods (and quoting them at length, after the manner of social scientists) that 
there is little time left for the actual study of religion, let alone its practice. 

Those who deplore what they see as the 're-theologising' of the study of religion 
deserve closer examination than we can give them here. One or two points may 
however be made. First, that (with the possible exception of the old USSR and its 
satellites) the study of religion had never been wholly 'de-theologised'; many and 
perhaps most of our intellectual forerunners were, as we say, 'believers'. They were 
not on the other hand obscurantists - prompting the reflection that the post- 1960s 
generation is so far removed from genuine liberalism in religion as to be unable to 
acknowledge what it once was, namely, the ability to grasp more than one side of 
an argument and the reasons behind each. 

It needs perhaps to be added that after about 1970, the meaning of 'theology' 
became more and more indistinct. What remained was 'theology as history of ideas' 
on the one hand, and 'theology as social ethics, with an occasional mention of God'. 

42 The study of religion in historical perspective 

Methodological issues 

It is time to attempt an assessment of the study of religion after the years of discovery, 
progress and reappraisal (and of course conflict) we have passed in rapid review. What 
have we learned from our academic past? Sometimes the problems we face today seem 
substantially the problems our forebears wrestled with in the past, and our descen- 
dants will no doubt still be debating a century from now. Arguably the most persistent 
of these concerns the religious allegiance (or lack of it) of the student: does the student 
function best as an insider or as an outsider? To this one can only answer that the 
insider knows by experience what to the outsider is mere conjecture; the insider is 
allowed access to 'mysteries' which remain barred to the uninitiated. On the mundane 
level of such things as history and geography, on the other hand, the outsider may 
well be the better informed of the two. Whether the outsider can enter imaginatively 
into the insider's 'spiritual experience' is extremely doubtful. In many of today's secular 
societies, the issue may in any case be a red herring, since what the media unfail- 
ingly dub 'sectarian' (i.e. religious) conflict generally proves on closer examination 
to be a matter of territory and resources, history and ethnicity, rather than religion 
as such. 

Another cardinal issue is that of secularisation, the process whereby religious ways 
of thinking and behaving are replaced by secular (from the Latin, saeculum, this 
world) substitutes. The process passes through three stages: rejection of religion and 
its replacement by secular authority, usually that of 'science'; adaptation of the old 
to the new values; and reaction, intransigent reaffirmation of the old ways in their 
entirety. It is at this third, reactive stage that there is created the much-maligned 
and much-feared phenomenon of fundamentalism and fundamentalists. 

Fundamentalism and conservatism are not synonyms. A conservative is one who 
loves and respects the old ways and the old traditions, and is reluctant to see them 
change; a fundamentalist is one who tries to battle the corrosive influence of the 
new and to re-establish the absolute authority of a holy book (the Bible, the Qur'an, 
the Veda), a law, a community and its traditional values. The fundamentalist is 
permanently on the defensive, and may be given to paranoia in the face of real 
or imagined enemies. By its very nature, fundamentalism is a matter for semi- 
sociological research. Taking the longer view, despite the vast attention that has 
always been paid to the texts of holy scripture, their functions in the community 
remain imperfectly understood. 

An overlapping subject for investigation is that of leadership. Fundamentalists 
seldom or never interpret scripture for themselves, but rely on the directives of a 
charismatic leader and the exegetical tradition of which he or she is part. The holy 
book is read (or listened to) selectively, after having been passed through the filter 
of a holy tradition - of which the individual fundamentalist generally remains 
unaware. The nature of religious community leadership then stands out as a matter 
of great importance, not least in the sectarian context. 


Space permits only one last addition to the list of unfinished religious studies busi- 
ness: the issue of pluralism. Once, 'pluralism' meant no more than variety or diversity, 
and as such was an unremarkable fact of religious life. Recently, however, it has 

The study of religion in historical perspective 43 

taken on a further, ideologically fuelled meaning: the unconditional right of every 
religious or other community to be itself and maintain its own traditions, practices 
and attitudes. Like every idealistic programme, that of pluralism (or in political terms, 
'multiculturalism') is flawed. It tends to assume, for instance, that religious tolera- 
tion and mutual acceptance is a normal and natural state of human affairs. History 
indicates otherwise. If, as we suggested at the beginning of this essay, religion and 
law are virtually inseparable in many societies (for instance Islam), a plurality of laws 
is as unacceptable as a plurality of gods was in ancient Israel, and for precisely the 
same reasons: peace and national cohesion. 

Where religion is closely allied with nationalism and ethnicity, as it so often is, 
an extra dimension is added. Conformity is loyalty, dissent is potential or actual 
treachery — a totalitarian point of view reserved in secular societies for extremist 
politics. In educational terms, this has led in the West to the insistence that where 
religious studies are taught, such teaching must be ideologically sound, value-free 
(the old mirage of 'objectivity') and politically innocuous. Secular educators in 
pluralist societies may go so far as to forbid every expression of overt religiosity — 
public prayer in schools, the wearing of distinctive items of clothing, even the 
celebration of religious festivals, outside the circle of the faithful. 

Clearly, the study of religion is not what it was to students of my generation. As 
the theologians have retreated — or at least redefined themselves — the social sciences 
have come to the fore. What are they hoping to 'understand'? Not as a rule the finer 
points of a Coptic text written two thousand years or so ago, or even an English or 
German text written less than a hundred years ago. The emphasis in departments of 
religious studies over the past thirty or so years has been tending more and more in 
the direction of contemporary issues, as pursued in departments of sociology and 
anthropology, where you use languages to communicate with the living, and not only 
to settle accounts with the dead. 

It has become somewhat fashionable in recent years to call in question one of the 
basic assumptions of 1970s-style religious studies: that the student's business is to 
understand religious belief and behaviour, irrespective of time and place. The counter- 
claim now is that 'understanding' is in the blood, and not in the brain; you cannot 
pretend to understand what you were not born to understand, and to claim other- 
wise is arrogance and cultural neo-imperialism. Thus only women can understand 
women, only African Americans can understand African Americans, only gay people 
can understand other gay people, only Jews can understand Jews, and so on ad 
infinitum. So where the troubles of the study of religion initially had to do with 
gaining access to the material, later the problems shifted to method (what to do with 
it once you have it), now we are troubled as never before by motive: whose inter- 
ests the study of religion is serving. The liberal ideal of disinterested scholarship 
pursued for its own sake is little mentioned in current debate. 

In educational terms, it matters very little under what 'disciplinary' or adminis- 
trative label the study of religion is pursued, provided that it is done with diligence 
and imagination by people who know what they are about, who are motivated by 
old-fashioned curiosity more than by the desire to score political points, beat a 
drum or make a career, and who respect the most frequently broken of the Ten 
Commandments, that which orders you not to bear false witness against your neigh- 
bour (whether alive or dead makes no difference). The history of the study of religion 

44 The study of religion in historical perspective 

is the story of people of all ages and cultures and political affiliations, who believe 
certain things about the world in which they live (or have lived), and because of 
that belief, behave in certain ways. They have done all the things people have always 
done: they have celebrated times and seasons with music and dance, food and drink; 
they have waged war and made peace; they have wondered, as we all still wonder, 
what it all means and what, if anything, lies on the far side of death. The study of 
religion is about all of these things, and many more. Let no one pretend that he or 
she is unaffected by these matters. To those who make such claims, I am tempted 
to say: 'Sir, Madam, James, Jane — with respect, I do not believe you.' Because when 
all the dross has been cleared away, the fact of our mortality will remain to tantalise 
us until it is too late for it to matter. 


Boorstin, D. J., The Discoverers. New York, Vintage Books, 1983. 

Capps, W. H., Religious Studies: The Making of a Discipline. Minneapolis MN, Fortress Press, 

Cook, S. A., The Study of Religions. London, A. & C. Black, 1914. 
Daniel, G., The Idea of Prehistory. Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1964- 
De Vries, J., The Study of Religion: A Historical Approach, trans. K. W. Bolle, New York, 

Harcourt, Brace 6k World, 1967. 
Durkheim, £., The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. Trans. J. W. Swain, London, George 

Allen & Unwin, 1915. 
Eliade, M. (ed.), Encyclopedia of Religion. 16 vols, New York, Macmillan, 1987. 
Ellegard, A., Darwin and the General Reader. Goteborg (Gothenburg, Sweden), Acta 

Universitatis Gothoburgensis 7, 1958. 
Evans-Pritchard, E. E., Theories of Primitive Religion. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1965. 
Feldman, B. and Richardson, R. D., The Rise of Modern Mythology, 1680—1860. Bloomington, 

Indiana, Indiana University Press, 1972. 
Frazer, J. G., The Golden Bough. Abridged edn, London, Macmillan, 1922. 
Freeman, D., Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth. 

Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1983. 
Hastings, J. (ed.), Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics. Edinburgh, T. & T. Clark, 1908-1926. 
Heiler, F., Erscheinungsformen und Wesen der Religion. Stuttgart, publisher unknown, 1961. 
Hinnells, J. R. (ed.), The New Penguin Dictionary of Religions. London, Penguin, 1997. 

(ed.), A New Handbook of Living Religions. Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1998. 

Hiigel, F. von, The Mystical Element of Religion. 2 vols, London, Dent, 1908. 

Hurd, W., New Universal History of the Religious Rites, Ceremonies and Customs of the Whole 

World. London, publisher unknown, 1788. 
Inge, W. R., Christian Mysticism. London, Methuen, 1899. 
James, W., The Principles of Psychology. 2 vols, New York, H. Holt & Co., 1890. 

The Varieties of Religious Experience. The Gifford Lectures 1901-2, reprinted Glasgow, 

Collins, 1977. 

Jones, R. M., Studies in Mystical Religion. London, Macmillan 6k Co., 1909. 
Lang, A., Custom and Myth. London, Longmans & Co., 1884. 

Myth, Ritual and Religion. 2 vols, London, Longmans 6k Co., 1887. 

The Making of Religion. London, Longmans 6k Co., 1898. 

Leeuw, G. van der, Religion in Essence and Manifestation: A Study in Phenomenology. Trans. 

J. E. Turner, London, George Allen 6k Unwin, 1938. 
Marett, R. R., The Threshold of Religion. London, Methuen, 1909. 

The study of religion in historical perspective 45 

Mead, M., Coming of Age in Samoa. New York, Morrow, 1928. 

Miiller, M. F., Introduction to the Science of Religion. London, Longmans, Green and Co., 1873. 

Nisbet, R. A., Emile Durkheim. Englewood Cliffs NJ, Prentice-Hall, 1965. 

Otto, R., The Idea of the Holy. Trans. J. W. Harvey, London, Humphrey Milford, 1923. 

Pratt, J. B., The Religious Consciousness: A Psychological Study. New York, Macmillan, 1920. 

Schiele, F. M. (ed.), Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart. 5 vols, Tubingen, publisher 

unknown, 1909-13. 
Schleiermacher, F., On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers. Trans. John Oman, London, 

publisher unknown, 1893. 
Schmidt, W., The Origin and Growth of Religion: Facts and Theories. London, Methuen, 1931. 
Sharpe, E. J., Understanding Religion. London, Duckworth, 1983. 

Comparative Religion: A History. London, Duckworth, 1975. Second edition, London, 

Duckworth, and La Salle, Open Court, 1986. 

Smart, N., The World's Religions. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1989. 
Smith, H., The Religions of Man. New York, Harper & Row, 1964- 
Spencer, H., First Principles. London, Williams & Norgate, 1862. 

Essays: Scientific, Political and Speculative. 3 vols, London, Williams & Norgate, 1901. 

Starbuck, E. D., The Psychology of Religion: An Empirical Study of the Growth of Religious 

Consciousness. London, Scott, 1899. 
Trompf, G. W., In Search of Origins. London, Oriental University Press, 1990. 
Underhill, E., Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Man's Spiritual Consciousness. 

13th edn, London, Methuen, 1940. 
Waardenburg, J., Classical Approaches to the Study of Religion: Aims, Methods and Theories of 

Research. 2 vols, The Hague and Paris, Mouton, 1973-4. 
White, A. D., A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. 2 vols, London, 

Arco, 1955. 


Key approaches to the 
study of religions 

Chapter 3 

Theories of religion 

Robert A. Segal 

Theories of religion go all the way back to the Presocratics. Modern theories come 
almost entirely from the modern disciplines of the social sciences: anthropology, 
sociology, psychology, and economics. Pre-social scientific theories came largely from 
philosophy and were speculative rather than empirical in nature. What John Beattie 
writes of modern anthropological theories of culture as a whole holds for theories of 
religion, and for theories from the other social sciences as well: 

Thus it was the reports of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century missionaries and 
travellers in Africa, North America, the Pacific and elsewhere that provided the 
raw material upon which the first anthropological works, written in the second 
half of the last century, were based. Before then, of course, there had been plenty 
of conjecturing about human institutions and their origins; to say nothing of 
earlier times, in the eighteenth century Hume, Adam Smith and Ferguson in 
Britain, and Montesquieu, Condorcet and others on the Continent, had written 
about primitive institutions. But although their speculations were often brilliant, 
these thinkers were not empirical scientists; their conclusions were not based on 
any kind of evidence which could be tested; rather, they were deductively argued 
from principles which were for the most part implicit in their own cultures. They 
were really philosophers and historians of Europe, not anthropologists. 

(Beattie 1964: 5-6) 

Origin and function 

A theory of religion is an answer to at least two questions: what is the origin and what 
is the function of religion? The term 'origin' is confusing because it can refer to either 
the historical or the recurrent beginning of religion. It can refer either to when and 
where religion first arose or to why religion arises whenever and wherever it arises. 
According to convention, nineteenth-century theories focused on the origin of reli- 
gion, where twentieth-century theories have focused on the function of religion. 
But 'origin' here means historical origin. Nineteenth-century theories sought the recur- 
rent origin of religion at least as much as any historical one, yet no more so than 
twentieth-century theories have done. Conversely, nineteenth-century theories were 
concerned as much with the function of religion as with the origin, and no less so 
than twentieth-century theories have been. Furthermore, the historical origin pro- 
posed by nineteenth-century theories was not that of a single time and place, such as 

50 Key approaches to the study of religions 

the Garden of Eden, but that of the earliest stage of religion — any time and anywhere. 
Therefore even the 'historical' origin was as much recurrent as one-time. 

The questions of recurrent origin and of function are connected, and few theories 
are concerned with only the recurrent origin or only the function. Ordinarily, the 
answer to both questions is a need, which religion arises and serves to fulfill. Theories 
differ over what that need is. Any theories that do concentrate on only the recur- 
rent origin or on only the function typically either attribute the origin of religion 
to an accident or make the function a byproduct. Yet 'accident' and 'byproduct' really 
refer to the means, not the ends. Unless religion, however accidental its origin or 
coincidental its function, serves a need, it surely will not last and surely will not 
continually re-arise. Still, origin and function are distinct issues, and to argue on the 
basis of the sheer fulfillment of a need that religion arises in order to fulfill the need 
is to commit the fallacy of affirming the consequent. 

The issues of origin and function can each be divided into two parts: not only 
why but also how religion arises or functions. In explaining the ends of religion, theo- 
ries do not thereby automatically explain the means. Some theories explain how 
religion arises, others how religion functions, others both, still others neither. 

For example, the Victorian anthropologist E. B. Tylor (1871), who epitomizes the 
purportedly nineteenth-century focus on origin, roots religion in observations by 
'primitives' of, especially, the immobility of the dead and the appearance in dreams 
and visions of persons residing far away. The 'why' of origin is an innate need 
to explain these observations, which trigger the need rather than implant it. The 
'how' of origin consists of the processes of observation, analogy, and generalization. 
Independently of one another, primitive peoples the world over create religion by 
these means and for this end. Later stages of humanity do not re-invent religion but 
instead inherit it from their primitive forebears. They perpetuate religion because it 
continues to satisfy in them, too, the need to explain observations. Similarly, reli- 
gion changes not because the need changes but because believers revise their 
conceptions of god. Religion gives way to science not because the need changes but 
because science provides a better, or at least more persuasive, means of satisfying it. 
The 'why' of function is the same as the why of origin: a need to explain observations. 
The 'how' of function is the one issue that Tylor ignores. 


Most twentieth-century theorists forswear the issue of the truth of religion as beyond 
the ken of the social sciences (see Segal 1989, ch. 7). One exception is the sociol- 
ogist Peter Berger, who ever since A Rumor of Angels (1969) has been prepared to 
use his theory to confirm the truth of religion (see Segal 1992: 6-7, 16, 117-18). 
Most nineteenth-century theorists were not at all reluctant to take a stand on the 
issue of truth. But they based their assessment on philosophical grounds, not on social 
scientific ones. Instead of enlisting the origin and function of religion to assess the 
truth of religion, they assessed the truth on an independent basis and, if anything, 
let their conclusion about it guide their theorizing about origin and function (see 
Segal 1992: 15-17). They thereby circumvent the possibility of committing either 
the genetic fallacy or what I call the functionalist fallacy: arguing that either the 
origin or the function of religion refutes - necessarily refutes - the truth of it. 

Theories of religion 51 

Theories from religious studies 

The key divide in theories of religion is between those theories that hail from the 
social sciences and those that hail from religious studies itself. Social scientific theo- 
ries deem the origin and function of religion nonreligious. The need that religion 
arises to fulfill can be for almost anything. It can be either physical — for example, 
for food, health, or prosperity — or intangible — for example, for explanation, as for 
Tylor, or for meaningfulness, as for Max Weber. The need can be on the part of 
individuals or on the part of society. In fulfilling the need, religion provides the 
means to a secular end. 

By contrast, theories from religious studies deem the origin and function of religion 
distinctively religious: the need that religion arises to fulfill is for god. There really is 
but one theory of religion from religious studies. Adherents to it include F. Max Miiller, 
C. P. Tiele, Gerardus van der Leeuw, Raffaele Pettazzoni, Joachim Wach, and Mircea 
Eliade. 1 For all of these 'religionists,' religion arises to provide contact with god. Like 
many social scientists, many religionists confine themselves to the issues of origin and 
function and shy away from the issue of truth. Just as social scientists entrust the issue 
of truth to philosophers, so religionists entrust it to theologians. 

For religionists, human beings need contact with god as an end in itself: they need 
contact with god because they need contact with god. An encounter with god may 
yield peace of mind and other benefits, but the need is still for the encounter itself. The 
need is considered as fundamental as the need for food or water. Without that contact, 
humans may not die, but they will languish. Because the need is for god, nothing sec- 
ular can substitute for religion. There may be secular, or seemingly secular, expressions 
of religion, but there are no secular substitutes for religion. Religionists consider the need 
for god not only distinctive but also universal. To demonstrate its universality, they 
point to the presence of religion even among professedly atheistic moderns. 

Strictly speaking, there are two versions of the single religionist theory. One is 
the form just described: religion originates within human beings, who seek contact 
with god. The exemplar of this form is Eliade, who stresses the yearning for god or, 
so he prefers, the sacred: 'But since religious man cannot live except in an atmos- 
phere impregnated with the sacred, we must expect to find a large number of 
techniques for consecrating space' (Eliade 1968: 28). Sacred places, or spaces, are 
one venue for encountering god. Religious sites, such as churches and mosques, are 
built on those spots where god is believed to have appeared — the assumption being 
that wherever god has once appeared, that god, even if formally omnipresent, is more 
likely to appear anew. Sacred times, or time, is the other venue for encountering 
god. Myths, which describe the creation by god of physical and social phenomena, 
carry one back to the time of creation, when, it is believed, god was closer at hand 
than god has been ever since: 'Now, what took place "in the beginning" was this: 
the divine or semidivine beings were active on earth . . . Man desires to recover the 
active presence of the gods . . . [T]he mythical time whose reactualization is period- 
ically attempted is a time sanctified by the divine presence . . .' (Eliade 1968: 92). 

This version of the religionist theory bypasses the issue of the existence of god. 
The theory is committed to the existence of only the need for god, not to the exist- 
ence of god. The catch is that if religionists claim that religion actually fulfills the 
need - and why else would they advocate religion? — then god must exist. Religionists 
thus prove to be theologians. Still, the emphasis is on the need itself. 

52 Key approaches to the study of religions 

The other version of the religionist theory, epitomized by Miiller, roots religion not 
in the need for god but in the experience of god. However indispensable the experi- 
ence of god may be for human fulfillment, religion originates not in the quest for god 
but in an unexpected encounter with god. Miiller himself singles out the sun and other 
celestial phenomena as the occasion where god or, for Miiller, the Infinite is encoun- 
tered: 'Thus sunrise was the revelation of nature, awakening in the human mind that 
feeling of dependence, of helplessness, of hope, of joy and faith in higher powers, which 
is the source of all wisdom, the spring of all religion' (Miiller 1867: 96). 

The two versions of the religionist theory are compatible. The quest for an 
encounter with god may be fulfilled by an uninitiated encounter, and an uninitiated 
encounter can lead to a quest for further encounters. Still, the approaches differ. 
One starts with a need; the other, with an experience. Deriving religion from a need 
for god makes the religionist theory more easily comparable with social scientific 
theories, nearly all of which do the same. 

Social scientific theories 

Religionists commonly assert that social scientists, in making religion a means to a 
nonreligious end, are less interested in religion than they. This assertion is false. 
Social scientists are interested in religion for exactly its capacity to produce anthro- 
pological, sociological, psychological, and economic effects. Many social scientists 
consider religion a most important means of fulfilling whatever they consider its 
nonreligious functions. Some even make it the key means of doing so. 

Moreover, for religion to function nonreligiously, it must be operating as religion. 
The nonreligious effect comes from a religious cause. The power that religion has, 
let us say, to goad adherents into accepting social inequality stems from the belief 
that god sanctions the inequality, that god will one day remedy the inequality, or 
that the inequality is a merely worldly matter. Without the belief, religion would 
have no social effect. Undeniably, the social sciences approve or disapprove of religion 
for only its anthropological, sociological, psychological, or economic consequences. 
Undeniably, religion is admired only when it inculcates culture, unites society, 
develops the mind, or spurs the economy, not when it makes contact with god. But 
the nonreligious benefit of religion presupposes the efficacy of religion as religion. 

Put another way, religion for social scientists functions as an independent vari- 
able, or as the cause of something else. In origin religion is indisputably a dependent 
variable, or the effect of something else, as it, like anything else, must be, unless it 
creates itself ex nihilo. But in function religion is an independent variable. Even if it 
is the product of nonreligious causes, it is in turn the cause of nonreligious effects. 
If religion could not be an independent variable in its effect because it was a 
dependent variable in its origin, there would be few independent variables around. 

Contemporary social scientific theories 

Religionists often assert that contemporary social scientists, in contrast to earlier 
ones, have at last come round to seeing religion the way the religionists do. 
Contemporary social scientists are consequently embraced by religionists as belated 
converts. The figures embraced most effusively are Mary Douglas (1966, 1973), Victor 

Theories of religion 53 

Turner (1967, 1968), Clifford Geertz (1973, 1983), Robert Bellah (1970), Peter 
Berger (1967, 1969), and Erik Erikson (1958, 1969). These social scientists are pitted 
against classical ones like Tylor (1871), Frazer (1922), Durkheim (1965), Malinowski 
(1925), Freud (1950), Jung (1938), and Marx and Engels (1957). 

What is the difference between classical and contemporary social scientists? The dif- 
ference cannot be over the importance of religion. Classical social scientists considered 
religion at least as important a phenomenon as any of their contemporary counterparts 
do. The power of religion is what impelled them to theorize about it. Similarly, the 
difference cannot be over the utility of religion. While for Frazer, Freud, and Marx, reli- 
gion is incontestably harmful, for Tylor, Jung, and Durkheim it is most helpful. For 
Tylor and Jung, religion is one of the best, and for Durkheim, is the best, means of serv- 
ing its beneficial functions. Contemporary social scientists grant religion no greater due. 

The difference between contemporary and classical social scientists must be over 
the nature of the function that religion serves. In contrast to classical theorists, for 
whom the functions of religion are nonreligious, contemporary theorists purportedly 
take the function of religion to be religious. But do they? Where religionists attribute 
religion to a yearning for god, contemporary social scientists attribute it to a yearning 
for, most often, a meaningful life. Contact with god may be one of the best means of 
providing meaningfulness, but even if it were the sole means, it would still be a means 
to a nonreligious end. For Douglas, humans need cognitive meaningfulness: they need 
to organize their experiences. For Turner, Geertz, Bellah, Berger, and Erikson, humans 
need existential meaningfulness: they need to explain, endure, or justify their experi- 
ences. Existential meaningfulness as the function of religion is not even new and goes 
back to at least Weber, who, to be sure, limits the need for meaningfulness to the 
'higher' religions (see Weber 1963, chs 8-13). But even if this function were new, the 
need would remain secular. In short, the divide between social scientific theories of 
religion and the religionist one remains (see Segal 1989, ch. 4). 

The religionist argument 

What is the case for the religionist theory? The case tends to be presented nega- 
tively. It appeals to the inadequacy of social scientific theories, which should in fact 
include contemporary theories. All social scientific theories are supposedly inade- 
quate because, in deeming the origin and function of religion nonreligious, they 
necessarily miss the religious nature of religion. Only the religionist theory captures 
the religious nature of religion. 

In actuality, social scientific theories do not miss the religious nature of religion. 
On the contrary, it is what they mean by religion. The religious nature of religion 
is the starting point of their theorizing. It is the datum to be theorized about. Far 
from somehow failing to perceive that adherents pray to god, sacrifice to god, and 
kill others in the name of god, social scientists take for granted that adherents do 
so. The question for social scientists is why they do so. The religious nature of reli- 
gion may be the starting point of theorizing, but it is not the end point. If social 
scientists somehow missed, let alone denied, that Christians go to church, sing hymns, 
take sacraments, read the Bible, and devote their lives to God, and do all of these 
things because they believe in God, they would be left with nothing to explain. 
Religiosity, far from being overlooked, is the preoccupation of social scientists. 

54 Key approaches to the study of religions 

Against social scientists and others, religionist Eliade, in a famous passage, declares 
that 'a religious phenomenon will only be recognized as such if it is grasped as it 
own level, that is to say, if it is studied as something religious. To try to grasp the 
essence of such a phenomenon by means of physiology, psychology, sociology, 
economics, linguistics, art or any other is false' (Eliade 1963: xiii). But Eliade conflates 
description with explanation, not to mention description with metaphysics (essence). 
No social scientist fails to recognize religion as religion. That is why there exists the 
anthropology of religion, the sociology of religion, the psychology of religion, and 
the economics of religion. There would be no social scientific theories of religion 
if the distinctiveness of religion went unrecognized. But the recognition of religion as 
religion does not mean the explanation of religion as religion. 

It is as believers in God that Christians go to church, but it is also, for example, 
as members of a group that they do so. While acknowledging the difference between 
a religious group and a team, a family, or a gang, sociologists explain religion in the 
same way that they explain a team, a family, and a gang: as a group. 

At the same time no sociological account of religion can be exhaustive. There is 
a point at which any sociological account must cease - the point at which a reli- 
gious group differs from any other kind of group. But to acknowledge a stopping 
point for sociology is not to concede a starting point. Sociology can account for reli- 
gion to whatever extent religion does constitute a group. How fully religion 
constitutes a group, it is up to sociologists to establish. The more group-like they 
show religion to be, the more successful their account. Sociologists are to be 
commended, not condemned, for attempting to account as fully as possible for reli- 
gion sociologically. Their inevitable inability to account for it entirely sociologically 
marks the limit, not the failure, of the sociology of religion. 

Religionists would reply that the attempt to 'sociologize' is inherently futile, for 
the origin and function of religion can only be religious. Otherwise religion ceases 
to be religion and becomes society. But this conventional rejoinder, offered like a 
litany, misses the point. Nobody denies that religion consists of beliefs and practices 
directed toward god rather than toward the group. But Durkheim, for example, is not 
thereby barred from matching a believer's experience of possession by god with an 
individual's experience of participation in a group. Durkheim is not barred from assert- 
ing that the euphoria and power which individuals feel when they amass at once 
precede religious experience, parallel religious experience, and thereby account for 
religious experience. Participants, thinking their state of mind superhuman, attribute 
it to possession by god, but Durkheim attributes it to 'possession' by the group. 

Still, Durkheim is not maintaining that religion originates exclusively through 
group experience. After all, the group is not itself god, just god-like. The concept 
of god and attendant practices must still be created. 2 Durkheim offers his account of 
religion as a necessary but not quite a sufficient one. What must yet be accounted 
for is precisely the step from group to god. But to concede that there is more to an 
account of religion than the group is not to concede that religiosity is all there is 
to an account. For Durkheim, religion is to be accounted for sociologically and 'reli- 
gionistically' - with the sociological element predominant. For all other social 
scientists the same is true: a sociological, anthropological, psychological, or economic 
account of religion must be supplemented by a religionist one. 

Theories of religion 55 

The final religionist rejoinder is the appeal to symmetry. If the effect is religion, 
the cause must be religionist. There must be a match between cause and effect. A 
sociological cause can produce only a sociological effect. Explained sociologically, 
the product is the group, not religion. 

This rejoinder, like other ones, misses the point. Of course, there must be symmetry 
between cause and effect. Causes must be enough akin to their effects to be capable 
of producing them. But a sociological account of religion does not purport to account 
for the nonsociological aspects of religion, only for the sociological ones. To reply 
that the sociological aspects are aspects of the group and not of religion is to commit 
a double fallacy: excluding the middle and begging the question. A sociological 
account of religion is not an account of something other than religion. It is an account 
of aspects of religion. To limit religion to its religionist aspects is to beg the question 
at hand: what is the nature of religion? 

To be sure, the claim that sociology can explain anything of religious beliefs and 
practices might seem to be asserting that sociology can explain something nonsociO' 
logical. But this concern is misplaced. Sociology takes seemingly nonsociological aspects 
of religion and transforms them into sociological ones, which it only then accounts 
for. Durkheim matches atttributes of god — god's power, god's overwhelming pres- 
ence, god's status as the source of values and institutions — with attributes of the 
group whose god it is. The symmetry between cause and effect is preserved by soci- 
ologizing the effect. A gap remains between the sociological cause and the religious 
effect: the group is still just a group, not a god. But symmetry is not intended to 
mean identity. 

To take an example from another field, Freud contends that a believer's relation- 
ship to the believer's father matches the believer's relationship to god. He contends 
that believers' feelings toward their fathers precede their feelings toward god, parallel 
those feelings, and therefore cause the feelings. But he proposes only a necessary, if 
also a largely sufficient, cause of religion. No more than Durkheim does he propose, 
to use a redundancy, an altogether sufficient one. What must still be supplied is the 
step from father to god. The father for Freud, like the group for Durkheim, is god- 
like but not god. God may be human-like, but no human being is omnipotent, 
omniscient, or immortal. God is 'father' of the whole world, not just of a family. 
The adult conception of god may derive from a child's 'idolization' of the child's own 
father, but the conception transforms a god-like figure into a god. Even when Freud 
brashly declares that 'at bottom God is nothing other than an exalted father' (Freud 
1950: 147), he is still distinguishing a human father from an exalted, deified father. 
The closer the link Freud draws between human father and god, the more convincing 
his account, but he, like Durkheim and all other social scientists, takes for granted 
a limit to the link, and does so even while ever trying to tighten that link. Again, 
symmetry does not mean identity. 

The mind-body analogy 

One way of exposing the fallacy in the religionist argument that only identity between 
cause and effect can account for the effect is to appeal to the grand philosophical 
issue of the relationship between the mind and the body. There are four possible 
relationships. (1) Only mind exists, and the body (matter) is an illusion (idealism). 

56 Key approaches to the study of religions 

(2) Only the body exists, and the mind (spirit) is an illusion (materialism, or reduc- 
tionism). (3) Both mind and body, spirit and matter, exist, but they operate 
independently of each other (parallelism). (4) Both mind and body, spirit and matter, 
exist, and either one causally affects the other (interactionism). Alternatively, the 
two causally affect each other. 

Religionists never go so far as to espouse the equivalent of idealism: claiming that 
only religiosity exists and that the mind, society, and culture are illusory. Rather, 
they assume as their options the equivalents of either parallelism or materialism/ 
reductionism. Parallelism clearly constitutes no threat, for it preserves religiosity. 
Religionists assume that the sole threat comes from materialism/reductionism, which 
they seek to counter by arguing that religion is other than mind, society, and culture. 
They often assume — falsely - that the social sciences are outright materialistic. 

Religionists overlook the interactionist option. Interactionism grants religion 
partial autonomy but not immunity. On the one hand it does not, like reductionism, 
dissolve religion into sheer mind, society, or culture. 3 On the other hand it does not, 
like parallelism, preclude the impact of the mind, society, or culture on religion. 

Nemeses of religionists like Durkheim, Freud, and Marx espouse interactionism 
rather than, as defined here, reductionism or, obviously, parallelism. They seek to 
account for religion, not to deny (reductionism) or to isolate (parallelism) it. If they 
denied religion (reductionism), they would have nothing to account for. If they isolated 
religion (parallelism), they would be unable to account for it. Because Durkheim, 
Freud, and Marx no more reduce religion entirely to society, mind, or economy than 
philosophical interactionists reduce the mind entirely to the body, they do not claim 
to be accounting wholly for it. They claim only to be accounting significantly for it. 
They claim that one cannot account for religion apart from society, mind, or economy. 
Furthermore, the interactionism is for them two-way: religion, here as an indepen- 
dent variable, accounts considerably for society, mind, and the economy, just as society, 
mind, and the economy account considerably for religion. 


A postmodern approach to religion might seem to offer religionists solace by its oppo- 
sition to generalizations and therefore to theorizing, but in fact it does not. Religionists 
theorize as much as social scientists. Contrary to postmodernists, both sides vaunt pre- 
cisely the universality of their formulations. Contrary to both religionists and social 
scientists, postmodernists insist that theories cannot apply universally, not merely that 
they may not — a point scarcely denied by theorists on either side. 

The postmodern refutation of theory takes several forms. One form is the uncov- 
ering of the origin — the historical, one-time origin — of theories. The assumption is 
that a theory does not merely arise in a specific time and place but is bound by that 
time and space. Where, for most of us, testing may show that a theory is in fact 
limited in its applicability, postmodernists assume a priori that any theory is so limited, 
and on the grounds that it originates in a specific time and place. But how can the 
sheer origin of a theory undermine - necessarily undermine - the theory? The argu- 
ment blatantly commits the genetic fallacy. Reducing the scope of theories to the 
occasion of their origin fails to allow theorists any capacity to think. It reduces theor- 
ists to mere mirrors of their times. It conflates discovery with invention, creativity 

Theories of religion 57 

with construction. For an example of this variety of the postmodern attack on theory, 
see many of the contributions to Critical Terms for Religious Studies (Taylor 1998). 

Another form of the postmodern attack on theory comes from Derrida. Here theor- 
ies are undermined by the presence of contrary currents in the texts that present the 
theories. The most brilliant application of Derridean deconstructionism to theories 
of religion is Tomoko Masuzawa's In Search of Dreamtime, the subtitle of which is 
The Quest for the Origin of Religion. Masuzawa assumes that classical theories of reli- 
gion sought above all the historical, one-time origin of religion. She lumps religionist 
theories with social scientific ones and takes as her prime targets Durkheim, Freud, 
Eliade, and Miiller. Against them, she argues that their own texts undermine their 
intentions. Like Pirandello's characters, their texts take on a life of their own. 

For example, Durkheim's definition of the sacred as the ideal society is supposedly 
undermined by the continual appearance in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life 
of another definition: the sacred as the opposite of the profane. Freud's attribution, 
in Totem and Taboo, of the origin of religion to the sons' rebellion against their 
tyrannical father is supposedly undercut by Freud's own characterization of this would- 
be historical deed as fantasy. Contemporary theorists of religion, epitomized by Eliade, 
may reject the quest for the origin of religion as unsolvable, but we are told that 
they remain obsessed with believers' own quest for the origin of everything, including 
religion. That quest is in turn undone by the locating of the origin of everything 
outside of history, in mythic time, and is undone still more by the attempt through 
myth to override history by recovering the past, by making the past present. 

Masuzawa's argument is tenuous. As noted, classical theorists sought the recurrent 
more than the historical origin of religion. Declares Durkheim near the outset of his 
Elementary Forms: 

The study which we are undertaking is therefore a way of taking up again, but under 
new conditions, the old problem of the origin of religion. To be sure, if by origin we 
are to understand the very first beginning, the question has nothing scientific about 
it, and should be resolutely discarded. There was no given moment when religion 
began to exist, and there is consequently no need of finding a means of transport- 
ing ourselves thither in thought . . . But the problem which we raise is quite another 
one. What we want to do is to find a means of discerning the ever-present causes 
upon which the most essential forms of religious thought and practice depend. 

(Durkheim 1965: 20) 

Even Freud, who in Totem and Taboo comes closest to seeking the historical origin 
of religion, seeks only the first stage of religion. Moreover, classical theorists, as noted, 
were as much after the function of religion as after the origin, recurrent or histor- 
ical. Contemporary theorists are no different. 

The presence in theories of inconsistencies argues for the provisional state of the 
theorizing, not for any systematic undermining of the effort. Furthermore, far 
more egregious inconsistencies in these theories have long been recognized. In 
Durkheim, sometimes society is the recurrent source of religion, but sometimes 
religion is the recurrent source of society. Freud himself sheepishly recognizes the 
seeming inconsistency between his account of religion in Totem and Taboo and his 
account of it in The Future of an Illusion. There may be irony, but no inconsistency, 

58 Key approaches to the study of religions 

in Eliade's abandonment of the quest for the historical origin of religion on the one 
hand and his interpretation of myth as a return to the historical, or prehistorical, 
origin of everything in the world on the other. 

Masuzawa's approach is postmodern in the conclusion she draws: that the quest for 
historical origin, for her the key concern of at least classical theorizing, must be aban- 
doned, in which case, so presumably, must theorizing itself, at least of a classical vari- 
ety. The rejection of historical origin is meant to be part of the deconstruction of 
epistemological foundations. The study of religion must acknowledge its fault lines. 

But even suppose that all classical theorists outright failed in a common quest for 
the historical origin of religion. What would follow? That subsequent theorists dare 
not try? Does the failure of even all quests to date doom all future ones? Does the 
quest for the historical origin of religion become impossible rather than merely 
difficult and become improper rather than merely impossible? 

The final postmodern rejection of theory derives from Foucault. Here the polit- 
ical end to which theories are put is sought — as if the use of a theory refutes the 
theory. This tactic commits what I dub the functionalist fallacy — the counterpart 
to the genetic fallacy. The fullest application of a Foucauldian analysis of religion is 
Russell McCutcheon's Manufacturing Religion. Rather than, like Masuzawa, attacking 
all theories of religion, McCutcheon attacks only the religionist theory. There is 
nothing postmodern in much of his attack, which concentrates on Eliade. Cataloguing 
standard objections, McCutcheon argues that Eliade attributes religion exclusively to 
a distinctively religious need, dismisses nonreligious needs as irrelevant by definition, 
and thereby isolates religion from the rest of life. McCutcheon is less Foucauldian 
than Marxist when he argues that religion arises to sanction oppression, as in using 
a myth of the origin of social inequality to justify the perpetuation of the inequality. 

McCutcheon follows Foucault in targeting less religion than the religionist theory, 
or 'discourse,' targeting it for its political effects. He objects to Eliade's theory not sim- 
ply because Eliade ignores the nonreligious origin and function of religion but even 
more because, in so doing, Eliade supposedly sanctions whatever political effect reli- 
gion in fact has. McCutcheon denies that the political consequence is unintended. 
Citing Eliade's own well-documented alliance with the fascistic Romanian Iron Guard, 
he asserts that the conception of religion as otherworldly is a calculated method of 
masking how worldly in both origin and function religion really is. The religionist dis- 
course 'manfactures' the theory of religion not merely to give religiosity autonomy, as 
has conventionally been argued, but to deflect attention away from the political ori- 
gin and function of religion. McCutcheon even suggests that religionist theorists man- 
ufacture religion to benefit themselves: to give themselves a discipline and, with it, 
jobs. Knowledge is power, as Sophists back in fifth-century Athens proclaimed. 

As delightfully iconoclastic as McCutcheon's claim is, he falls far short of proving 
it. One must do more than show that religion has a political side, and McCutcheon 
himself offers only a handful of examples. One must also show that religion has no 
religionist side, lest, as for even reductionists, the religionist theory still hold, albeit 
less than monopolistically. To do so, McCutcheon must account for all of religion 
nonreligiously. Showing who benefits from religion hardly suffices, for there can be 
multiple effects of religion, which, like much else in life, can be overdetermined. 
And the nonreligious effects can surely, as for Weber and other theorists, be coin- 
cidental rather than intentional. In trying to replace rather than to supplement a 

Theories of religion 59 

religionist account of religion with a political one, McCutcheon thus ventures beyond 
both classical and contemporary social scientific theorists, whose accounts of religion 
are, again, proffered as less than sufficient. Indeed, McCutcheon's one-sided view 
ventures beyond that of even some religionists, not all of whom insist, like Eliade, 
that religion is exclusively religionist in origin and function. 

In postmodern fashion, McCutcheon ties his repudiation of the religionist theory 
to an opposition to theorizing itself. Somehow the attribution of religion to a spir- 
itual need makes all religions the same — the prerequisite for a theory. Yet somehow 
the attribution of religion to a political need makes all religions different - and 
thereby impervious to generalization. When McCutcheon insists on 'contextualizing' 
religion, he means rooting religion not simply in political and other material condi- 
tions generally but in the material conditions particular to each religion. Yet his 
mechanical quest for the material beneficiary of each religion seemingly makes all 
religions the same. In place of the 'totalizing' religionist theory, he puts an equally 
totalizing materialist theory. 

Postmodern criticisms of theories of religion arise in conspicuous ignorance of 
contemporary philosophy of social science and the sociology of natural science. 
Absent is the consideration of logical problems like those of induction, falsification, 
and relativism. Absent is the mention of the various alternatives proposed to the 
standard models of scientific explanation worked out by, above all, Carl Hempel, 
who himself allows for merely probabilistic explanations. Postmodernism dismisses 
theorizing per se, and on the most illogical of grounds, of which the worst is the one 
that 'we live in a postmodern world.' 

In postmodern approaches to religion, one never encounters discussions of the 
ramifications of, above all, radical, contemporary sociology of science. For example, 
the Edinburgh 'strong programme' of David Bloor (1991), Barry Barnes, and Steven 
Shapin offers a comprehensive rationale for the activity that should make postmod- 
ernists salivate: the contextualizing of theories. According to the programme, the 
holding of all beliefs, true and rational ones no less than false and irrational ones, 
is to be accounted for sociologically rather than intellectually. Where McCutcheon 
and the contributors to Critical Terms (Taylor 1998) either ignore the issue of truth, 
limiting themselves to the issues of origin and function, or else conflate the issues, 
the Edinburgh sociologists distinguish the issues, take on truth as well as origin and 
function, and argue that all evaluations of scientific theories are dictated by nonin- 
tellectual factors. Would-be intellectual justifications purportedly mask sociological 
imperatives, including ideological ones. Epistemology becomes sociology. The bold- 
ness of this nonpostmodern approach to theorizing in science makes the postmodern 
approach to theorizing in religion rather tame. 

Overall, theorizing about religion, whether by religionists or by social scientists, 
remains safe from the postmodern attack, just as social scientific theorizing about 
religion remains safe from the religionist attack. May social scientists continue to 
make sense of religion. 


1 I exclude Rudolf Otto because he does not account for religion but instead simply defines 
religion as an encounter with god. 

60 Key approaches to the study of religions 

2 Furthermore, the group comes together in the first place for religious reasons - one of 
the circularites in Durkheim's argument. Thus Australian aboriginal clans, Durkheim's 
test case, amass to 'celebrate a religious ceremony' (Durkheim 1965: 246). 

3 Reductionism here means complete, or eliminative, reductionism. The reduction is onto- 
logical. By contrast, the reduction in social scientific accounts of religion is only 
methodological. Social scientists deny not that religious beliefs and practices exist but 
that those beliefs and practices generate and sustain themselves. Religious beliefs and 
practices are not considered hallucinatory. The 'hallucination' is the assumption that they 
create and perpetuate themselves. 


Beattie, John 1966 [1964] Other Cultures. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul; New York: Free 

Bellah, Robert N. 1970 Beyond Belief. New York: Harper 6k Row. 
Berger, Peter L. 1967 The Sacred Canopy. Garden City, NY: Doubleday. (Also published as The 

Social Reality of Religion. London: Faber and Faber, 1969.) 

1969 A Rumor of Angels. Garden City, NY: Doubleday. 

Bloor, David 1991 Knowledge and Social Imagery. 2nd edn (1st edn 1976). Chicago: University 

of Chicago Press. 
Douglas, Mary 1966 Purity and Danger. New York and London: Routledge. 

1973 Natural Symbols. 2nd edn (1st edn 1970). New York: Vintage Books; London: Barrie 

and Jenkins. 

Durkheim, Emile 1965 [1912] The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, trans. Joseph Ward 

Swain. New York: Free Press. 
Eliade, Mircea 1963 [1958] Patterns in Comparative Religion, trans. Rosemary Sheed. Cleveland: 

Meridian Books. 

1968 [1959] The Sacred and the Profane, trans. Willard R. Trask. New York: Harvest Books. 

Erikson, Erik H. 1958 Young Man Luther. New York: Norton. 

1969 Gandhi's Truth. New York: Norton. 

Frazer, James George 1890, 1900, 1911-15 The Golden Bough. Abridged edn 1922. London: 

Freud, Sigmund 1950 Totem and Taboo, trans. James Strachey. London: Routledge 6k Kegan Paul. 

1964 [1961] The Future of an Illusion, trans. W. D. Robson-Scott, rev. James Strachey. 

Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor Books. 

Geertz, Clifford 1973 The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books. 

1983 Local Knowledge. New York: Basic Books. 

Jung, C. G. 1938 Psychology and Religion. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. 
McCutcheon, Russell 1996 Manufacturing Religion. New York: Oxford University Press. 
Malinowski, Bronislaw 1925 'Magic, Science and Religion,' in Joseph Needham, ed., Science, 

Religion and Reality. New York and London: Macmillan, pp. 20-84. 
Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels 1957 On Religion. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing. 
Masuzawa, Tomoko 1993 In Search of Dreamtime. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 
Miiller, Friedrich Max 1867 'Comparative Mythology' (1856), in his Chips from a German 

Workshop. Vol. 2. London: Longmans, Green, pp. 1—141- 
Segal, Robert A. 1989 Religion and the Social Sciences. Atlanta: Scholars Press. 

1992 Explaining and Interpreting Religion. New York: Peter Lang. 

Taylor, Mark C, ed. 1998 Critical Terms for Religious Studies. Chicago: University of Chicago 

Turner, Victor H. 1967 The Forest of Symbols. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. 

1968 The Drums of Affliction. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 

Tylor, E. B. 1871 Primitive Culture. 2 vols. London: Murray. 

Weber, Max 1963 The Sociology of Religion, trans. Ephraim Fischoff. Boston: Beacon Press. 

Chapter 4 


David F. Ford* 

Definitions of theology and academic theology 

Theology at its broadest is thinking about questions raised by, about and between 
the religions. The name 'theology' is not used in all religious traditions and is rejected 
by some. It is a term with its own history, which will be sketched below. Yet there 
is no other non-controversial term for what this chapter is about, so it is used here 
in full recognition of the disputes and diverse associations surrounding it. Theology 
has many analogues or comparable terms such as 'religious thought', 'religious phil- 
osophy', various technical terms for the teaching and deliberative dimension of 
particular religions and even 'wisdom'. Indeed, wisdom (though itself a complex idea 
with different meanings and analogues in different traditions) is perhaps the most 
comprehensive and least controversial term for what theology is about. Wisdom may 
embrace describing, understanding, explaining, knowing and deciding, not only 
regarding matters of empirical fact but also regarding values, norms, beliefs and the 
shaping of lives, communities and institutions. The broad definition of theology given 
above could be refined by reference to wisdom. The questions raised by, about and 
between the religions include some that are not necessarily theological, and many 
of these are formative for the disciplines covered in other chapters in this volume. 
One helpful (if still quite vague) further determination of the nature of theology by 
reference to wisdom is: at its broadest, theology is thinking and deliberating in relation 
to the religions with a view to wisdom. 

This chapter is mainly about the narrower subject of academic theology as pursued 
in universities and other advanced teaching and research institutions, especially in set- 
tings variously called departments of religion, religious studies, theology and religious 
studies, theology or divinity. The primary focus is on this academic theology in its 
European history and its present situation in universities that are in continuity with 
that tradition and its expansion beyond Europe. There have been numerous traditions 
of theology (or its analogues) originating in other parts of the world and in various 
religious traditions, some of which are increasingly significant within contemporary 
universities; but an appropriate way of portraying academic theology within one chap- 
ter is to concentrate on its characteristics in the academic tradition that generated the 
field called in other chapters the study of religion or religious studies. 

In that tradition, as will be seen, theology is an inherently controversial discipline 
because of its subject matter, because of its history, because of the relations of other 
disciplines to religious issues and because of the nature of modern universities and 

62 Key approaches to the study of religions 

the societies that support them. Academic theology is distinguished from theology 
in general mainly by its relation to the various disciplines of the academy. So a 
preliminary definition of academic theology (and analogues of theology) is that it 
seeks wisdom in relation to questions, such as those of meaning, truth, beauty and practice, 
which are raised by, about and between the religions and are pursued through engagement 
with a range of academic disciplines. 

The final preliminary definition to be considered is that of religion. This too is a 
contested concept, as other chapters in this volume make clear. For the purposes of 
this chapter it is sufficient to identify religion in a low-key, non-technical way through 
a number of generally accepted examples. Religion, it is assumed, includes such ways 
of shaping human life in communities and their associated traditions as are exem- 
plified by Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism. This is not an 
exclusive definition; it simply limits the scope of reference of this chapter, while 
allowing that much of what it says could be applied to other instances of religion 
and to traditions (such as cultures, philosophical schools, or secular worldviews and 
ways of living) which might not be included in a particular definition of religion. It 
is also a definition that does not entail any particular position on such disputed 
matters as the essence, origin and function of religion. 

Before focussing on the discipline of academic theology it is important first to say 
more about theology and its analogues in the broadest sense. 

Theology beyond the academy 

The religious communities mentioned in the definition above all place a high priority 
on learning and teaching. An immense amount of time and energy is spent on such 
activities as the study and interpretation of key texts, and instruction in tradition, 
prayer and ethics. Much learning happens through imitation, and the adoption of 
habits of thought, imagination, feeling and activity, which are assimilated through 
participation in a community's life. Such learning and teaching have been important 
in helping those traditions survive and develop over many generations. 

It is, however, never simply a matter of repeating the past. The texts and commen- 
tators raise questions that require consideration afresh by each generation; each period 
and situation raises new issues; there are conflicts, splits and challenges from inside and 
outside the tradition. Even when the verdict is that what is received from the past 
ought to be repeated and imitated as closely as possible in the present, that is a deci- 
sion which cannot be arrived at without some deliberation. Thinking about appropri- 
ate ways to understand and act in the context of a particular tradition comes under my 
broad definition of theology. Such thought is pervasive and usually informal, and teach- 
ing usually aims at turning its basic features into implicit, taken-for-granted assump- 
tions in the light of which questions are faced and behaviour shaped. Yet, because of 
the many factors which prompt internal and external questioning, explicit thought may 
also be provoked, and theological inquiry, in the sense described above, may be gen- 
erated. What is the right interpretation of this text? How should children be educated 
in this tradition? What is the right response to legal or political injustice? Does God 
exist? If so, what sort of God? What about death, creation, salvation, gender issues? 
What, if any, is the purpose of life? How should those with very different traditions 
and conceptions be treated? Such questions may give rise to theological inquiry. 

Theology 63 

Yet it is not only those who identify with a particular community and its tradi- 
tions who ask such questions. Religions provoke inquiry in many beyond their own 
members; and some of their own members may dissociate themselves from their 
community but may still (sometimes even more energetically) pursue such questions. 
In addition, there are public debates about every major area of life — medicine, poli- 
tics, economics, war, justice and so on — which raise religious issues and require 
deliberation and decision. Such debates display various types of theological thinking, 
both implicit and explicit. 

Therefore theology in the broad sense is practised not only within religious 
communities but also by many who are beyond such communities or in an ambiva- 
lent relationship with them; and it is also present between religious communities 
and in public debates, both within and between nations. 

Finally, theological questions arise at all levels of education. They may be focussed 
in religious or theological education, but, because of the considerations discussed 
above, they are also distributed through other subjects, and they are relevant to 
overall educational policy and practice. 

Overall, it is important to remember that only a very small part of the theology 
going on in the world is taught and learnt in the university settings that are the 
main concern of this chapter. 

Academic theology: early history in Europe 

The Greek word theologia meant an account of the gods, and it was taken over by 
the early Christian church to refer to the biblical account of God's relationship to 
humanity. This close relationship to scripture was maintained through the Middle 
Ages in western Europe, when theology in the narrower sense of a specific discipline 
studied in universities arose with the development of universities in the early thir- 
teenth century. It is significant that these universities themselves had many 
characteristics in common with Islamic institutions from which Christian scholars 
learnt a great deal. 

Before the foundation of universities, theology had been nurtured in the many 
monasteries around Europe and in associated rural schools. Theology was there insep- 
arable from the duties of worship and prayer, pervaded by the life of the cloister. In 
the cities the cathedral schools, founded for training diocesan clergy, were important 
theological centres. In addition, theology in the cities became part of the guild- 
oriented activity of a new rising class of freemen, both students and teachers, who 
responded favourably to new forms of argument and teaching and to the rediscovery 
of forgotten writings of the past. Here theology in schools (hence the label 'scholas- 
tic') was becoming a specialty subject for professional, philosophically trained dialec- 
ticians. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109), based in a monastery, brought fresh 
systematic and argumentative rigour to theology, and described it as 'faith seeking 
understanding'. Peter Abelard (1079-1142) represented the new sort of teacher and 
dialectician. In Paris, the new religious movement embodied in the Augustinian 
canons of St Victor mediated between the claims of the monastery and the school- 
room. This was an age of discovery, compilation and integration, which culminated 
in producing what became (in addition to the Bible) the standard theological text for 
discussion in the university schoolrooms of Europe during the next four centuries. This 

64 Key approaches to the study of religions 

was the Sentences of Peter the Lombard (d. 1160), a collection of four books of the 
theological wisdom of Scripture and of the early Fathers of the church. 

After the formal establishment of the first universities in the first part of the thir- 
teenth century, scholastic theology developed under a new influence, the mendicant 
religious orders of Franciscans and Dominicans. Both flourished in the new University 
of Paris. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) among the Dominicans and Bonaventure 
(1221—1274) among the Franciscans developed distinctive ways of doing theology 
within the new universities. They drew on traditional monastic resources such as 
Augustine and Pseudo-Dionysius, and, especially in Thomas's case, on newly discov- 
ered texts of Aristotle as well. Their disputation-dominated educational environment 
produced several major theological syntheses, which remain classic texts. One persis- 
tently contentious issue remained the nature of theology. Whereas all agreed that it 
was a form of sapientia (wisdom) there was dispute about its status as a scientia (branch 
of rational knowledge relying on its own first principles). 

In the later Middle Ages theology split into distinct 'ways' based on the religious 
orders. After 1450, as the Renaissance and other changes occurred in Europe, the 
dominance of Parisian theology was broken as many European universities established 
theology faculties. The largely Dominican faculty at Salamanca replaced Lombard's 
Sentences with Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologiae as the basic text for classroom 
commentary. The Salamancan theologian Melchior Cano (1509-1560) produced a 
systematic treatise combining various kinds of authoritative texts, scriptural, scholas- 
tic and Renaissance humanist, including historical and scientific, covering the main 
theological loci (places). This gave birth to systematic theology in the modern sense. 

By this time, humanist scholarship, especially represented by Desiderius Erasmus 
(1466-1536), together with the initiation of the Protestant Reformation by a professor 
at the University of Wittenberg, Martin Luther (1483-1546), had begun a reaction 
against a scholastic theology that had become highly specialised and abstruse. The 
humanist and Protestant emphasis was on recovering the original sense of scripture 
and of early Christian writers. They produced scholarly editions of the texts based 
on the best possible manuscript evidence, and they interpreted the 'plain sense' of 
the texts with the intention of approximating as near as possible to what the authors 
meant. The result in Protestant universities was that the main task of theology became 
the interpretation of scripture studied in Hebrew and Greek. 

Catholic theology continued to be scholastic in form, with Thomas Aquinas domi- 
nant, though often understood through the medium of later interpreters and 
summaries in manuals. Polemics between Catholics and Protestants increasingly 
shaped both sides, as they developed systematic statements of their positions and 
counterpositions. A further dimension was apologetics defending theological posi- 
tions against an increasing number of critiques and challenges, some of which made 
a sharp distinction between 'revealed' and 'natural' religion and theology. During the 
eighteenth century, theology began to lose its role as the 'leading science' whose 
word carried authority for other faculties. The rise of sovereign states, whose prac- 
tical demands were less theological than legal, gave pre-eminence to the law faculties. 
These in turn were superseded by the 'new sciences' that entered the curriculum, 
studying the 'book of nature'. Many of the ideas that had most effect on later discus- 
sion of theological issues were generated by those outside theology faculties, whether 
Protestant or Catholic. 

Theology 65 

During these centuries, theology also became increasingly differentiated into 
branches. By the twentieth century the main branches had become: systematic (or 
dogmatic or doctrinal or constructive) theology; historical theology; biblical theology; 
moral theology (or theological ethics); philosophical theology; practical (or pastoral) 
theology and mystical theology (or spirituality). 

Academic theology in the modern university 

A formative event in the shaping of the modern academic tradition of Christian 
theology in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was the foundation of the 
University of Berlin in 1809, which became for many the archetypal modern univer- 
sity (see Frei 1992: 95ff.). There was considerable debate about whether theology 
ought to be included in it. Some (such as the philosopher J.G. Fichte) argued that 
it had no place in a university committed to modern standards of rationality. The 
position which won was that of the theologian F.D.E. Schleiermacher, who affirmed 
the role of rationality in the university without allowing it either to dictate to 
theology or to be in competition with theology. He saw theology as a positive science 
or discipline (Wissenschaft) , by which he meant that it was not included within any 
one theoretical discipline but that it related to several disciplines with a view to the 
practical task of educating those who would lead the Christian church. The usual 
pattern of theological faculties in the German university became that of the state 
overseeing and paying for a faculty which both owed allegiance to general standards 
of rationality (Wissenschaft) that presuppose academic freedom, and also was com- 
mitted to training clergy for the state Protestant church. Two consequences of this 
make modern German theology a specially good focus through which to study the 
discipline in modernity. 

First, it meant that theology was carried on in an environment where it was contin- 
ually in engagement with and informed by other academic disciplines in their most 
advanced forms. Christianity became the religion that was most thoroughly exam- 
ined, explained, critiqued and argued about in the nineteenth-century European 

Second, the attempt to hold together the requirements of academy and church 
built into theology the tendency towards a tension between 'reason' and 'faith'. This 
tension is one way of approaching the task of describing basic types of modern 
Christian theology (see Frei 1992; Ford 2005; cf. below pp. 69-71). These types are 
of wider relevance than to the German or the Christian context, and developing 
them will provide a helpful framework later in this chapter. 

The German pattern might be described as confessional theology (in the sense of 
theology according to the belief and practice of one religious community or 'confes- 
sion' of faith) funded by the state. This continues to be the norm in Germany and 
other countries which follow its pattern, and some universities contain both Roman 
Catholic and Protestant faculties of theology. In addition, some German universities 
teach religious studies or 'history of religions', and there is a fluid situation as regards 
the relations with theology. 

Elsewhere, different patterns have emerged. Those in North America and England 
exemplify the main contrasting ways in which the discipline is present in universities 

66 Key approaches to the study of religions 

In North America the tendency has been to separate theology from religious 
studies. Theology has often been understood as a confessional discipline (whereas 
the description given above includes confessional theology but is not limited to it) 
and has been largely taught in institutions affiliated to a Christian church or group 
of churches. The main location of theology has therefore been the 'seminary' or 
'divinity school', sometimes attached as a professional school to a non-state univer- 
sity. Because of the separation of church and state, theology has rarely been taught, 
except as intellectual history, at state-funded universities, but many church-affiliated 
universities have departments of theology. Departments of religious studies exist in 
many state and private universities. These embody various understandings of the 
discipline, ranging from a few which integrate theology with religious studies, to 
others which define religious studies over against theology (a position that has been 
represented controversially by Don Wiebe, the author of Chapter 6). Judaism, numer- 
ically far smaller than Christianity, displays a comparable range of relationships in 
the institutionalisation of its theology or (to use a term which is preferred by many 
Jews) its religious thought (see pp. 73-4). 

In Britain university theology has become largely state-funded, and has developed 
from being exclusively Christian and Anglican to embracing, first, other Christian 
traditions, and then, in the later twentieth century, other religions. Departments in 
British universities are called variously theology, religious studies, theology and reli- 
gious studies, and divinity. Whatever the name, most now embrace both theology 
and religious studies. 

Most universities in other parts of the world roughly correspond to the German 
(confessional theology), American (separation of theology and religious studies) or 
British (integration of theology with religious studies) models for the field, and both 
within countries and internationally there is a continuing debate about which is to 
be preferred. The next section will outline the main issues in the debate. 

Theology in distinction from religious studies 

Theology has advanced reasons why it should be separate from religious studies; reli- 
gious studies has likewise had reasons for being separate from theology; and there 
have been advocates of integration who refuse to accept such separation. We will 
consider each set of reasons in turn, while recognizing that there are also those who 
interpret the reasons on one or both sides as rationalizations of religious, political or 
economic interests intent on maintaining or gaining power and influence. 

Theology's reasons for favouring separation centre on three related considerations. 

First, especially in the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) there 
is the role of God in knowing God, and of faith and commitment in doing theology. 
If theology includes knowing God (or analogues of God), and if knowing God depends 
on responding in faith and obedience (or on some other form of self-involving prac- 
tice) to God's initiative, then surely those who are not believers cannot do theology? 

Second, moving beyond the possible individualism of the first point, there is the 
relation of theology to a community and its tradition. If a particular theology is 
intrinsically connected to a particular community, then surely it can only be 
genuinely pursued in the context of that community? The logic of these points is to 

Theology 67 

confine genuine theology to confessional faculties, seminaries, divinity schools or 
other institutions in affiliation with the community whose theology is being studied. 
Third, there has been some theological suspicion of the very category of 'religion'. 
Whereas, for example, God in Jewish, Christian or Muslim belief can be understood 
as relating to and transcending all creation, religion has often been seen as one 
domain of human existence among others. The objection of theology to being paired 
with religious studies is that this constricts the scope of theology. The effect of the 
Enlightenment (not least through inventing the modern sense of the word 'religion') 
tended to be to privatize religion, so that it became a matter of private discretion 
with its proper sphere in human interiority. Where religion's public role was 
concerned, the tendency was to limit its power and to deny its contribution to public 
truth. Its competitors in the public sphere included not only nationalism, capitalism 
and communism, but also new understandings of the universe, humanity, history and 
society which were closely associated with various academic disciplines. When these 
disciplines focussed on their limited concepts of religion, theology did not find that 
they could do justice to its questions of meaning, truth, beauty and practice. 

Religious studies in distinction from theology 

Religious studies, for its part, has been aware that its origins in European and 
American universities lay partly in a desire for academic freedom for the study of 
religion without being answerable to religious authorities. Institutional separation 
from theology had a political point. 

Academically, the key issue concerned knowledge and the methods which lead to 
it. The study of religion developed as a loose alliance of disciplines whose main 
concerns were elsewhere. It has never had a generally agreed method or set of 
methods, despite many proposals. In one of the most comprehensive accounts of the 
field, Walter H. Capps finds its fragile coherence in an Enlightenment tradition stem- 
ming from Descartes and Kant in its conception of knowledge and method (Capps 
1995). Religious studies has focussed on questions such as the essence and origin of 
religion, the description and function of religion, the language of religion and the 
comparison of religions. But, in dealing with those questions through disciplines such 
as philosophy, psychology, sociology, phenomenology and anthropology, Capps 
suggests that the most fundamental feature of the field has been a broadly Kantian 
epistemology (if that can be taken as allowing for both empiricist and hermeneut- 
ical developments). The concern for academic autonomy in line with that tradition 
has often persuaded it to prefer separation from theology, except where theology (or 
its analogues) is willing to accept its terms. Capps is hospitable to theology, which 
is willing to find a role contributing to his conception of religious studies, but he 
also recognizes the need to go beyond his own paradigm. The next section offers one 
conception of how that might be achieved. 

The question about knowledge and methods is a mirror-image of the problems, 
mentioned above, which theology has with religious studies. Religious studies has 
usually wanted to bracket out, for example, any conception of God being involved 
in the knowing that goes on in the field; and its pursuit of questions of meaning, 
truth, beauty and practice has tended to be limited to the methods of its constituent 
disciplines. It prefers to use such methods in rigorous pursuit of what can be known 

68 Key approaches to the study of religions 

and justified to dealing with larger or more synthetic issues without those methods 
or beyond them. Overall, therefore, a basic concern of religious studies has been that 
of the academic integrity of the field. 

Theology integrated with religious studies 

Those who advocate the integration of theology with religious studies rarely suggest 
that all theology and religious studies should be institutionally combined. They recog- 
nize that religious communities will want to have their own academic institutions 
in which confessional theology (or its analogues) would be the norm; and that many 
universities will want to specialize in their religious studies (e.g. by focussing on a 
few disciplines such as sociology, anthropology or phenomenology) so as exclude 
theology as well as some other disciplines. There are many factors (historical, reli- 
gious, political, economic, cultural) other than the overall conception of the field 
which help determine its shape in a particular institution. Their main point for 
integration is the academic case in principle for the inseparability of the two. One 
version of the case is as follows. 

First, theology is not in competition with religious studies but needs it. If theology 
is to be rigorous in its pursuit of questions of meaning, truth, beauty and practice 
then it needs to draw on work in other disciplines. This will not just be a matter of 
using their results when they are congenial, but rather of entering into them from 
the inside and engaging both critically and constructively with their methods and 
results. Academic theology has done this much more thoroughly in some areas than 
in others. It has been most widely practised in relation to philosophy, textual schol- 
arship and history. In each of these fields there are many practitioners who integrate 
their discipline with theology, and also many who do not. This gives rise to consid- 
erable debate about issues that are not likely to be conclusively resolved (a common 
situation in philosophy, textual interpretation and history). The argument is that for 
the health of the field it is desirable to have some settings where such debates can 
be carried on as fully as possible. 

Second, theology is not just pursued by those who identify with a particular 
community, and it can be studied in many ways other than confessionally (see 
p. 63). Universities are obvious settings for those who wish to pursue theological 
questions in such ways. For the members of particular religious communities there 
can also be advantages in doing theology in dialogue with academics and students 
of other faith traditions and of none. 

Third, religious studies need not be in competition with theology. Certain defin- 
itions of the field exclude certain definitions of theology (see above pp. 61—62), but 
other definitions of religious studies open it towards integration with theology. A 
key issue is how far questions intrinsic to the field may be pursued, and whether 
some answers to those questions are to be ruled out in advance. For example, is the 
question of truth concerning the reality of God as identified by a particular tradi- 
tion allowed to be pursued and then answered in line with that tradition? If so, then 
the way is opened for critical and constructive theology within a religious studies 
milieu. If not, what reasons can be offered for cutting off inquiry and disallowing 
certain answers? Such cutting off and disallowing either appears arbitrary or it relies 
on criteria that are themselves widely contested and debated within the field. The 

Theology 69 

irresolvability of the dispute over boundaries and criteria has been intensified by 
similar disputes, often bitter, in other disciplines with which religious studies and 
theology engage, such as literary studies, philosophy, history and the human sciences. 

Fourth, the three main responsibilities of theology and religious studies can be 
argued to converge and so make integration appropriate for them in university 
settings. The first is their responsibility towards the academy and its disciplines. The 
requirement is excellence in the study and teaching of texts, history, laws, traditions, 
practices, institutions, ideas, the arts and so on, as these relate to religions in the 
past and the present. This involves standards set by peer groups, work within and 
collaboration between disciplines and a worldwide network of communication. The 
second is their responsibility towards religious communities. This includes the tasks 
of carrying out their academic responsibilities critically and constructively, educating 
members of religious communities as well as others, and providing forums where reli- 
gious traditions can engage in study, dialogue and debate together. Universities have 
increasingly become centres of such interfaith engagement in which theological 
concerns with, for example, questions of truth and practice, go together with the use 
of a range of academic disciplines. The third is their responsibility to society and 
the realm of public life. Issues in politics, law, the media, education, medicine and 
family life often raise questions which require complex interdisciplinary, interreli- 
gious and international collaboration. These questions embrace theological as well 
as other matters. 

Fifth, in the light of the above four points, the case for a fundamental dualism in 
the field is undermined. It is still appropriate to have institutions with particular 
emphases and commitments, but the overall intellectual and ethical 'ecology' of the 
field embraces theology and religious studies. 

Types of Christian theology 

How can the field of academic theology be described so as to do justice to the range 
of theologies and their different ways of relating to other disciplines? One typology 
worked out in relation to Christian theology is that of Frei (1992). It takes account 
of the importance of institutional contexts both historically and today. Frei takes the 
University of Berlin as his historical point of departure (see above pp. 65—6), and 
his typology also relates to the American situation of theology and religious studies. 
He recognizes that there are very different types of theology, some of which are more 
at home in universities than others. His typology therefore grows out of the academic 
tradition with which this chapter is mainly concerned and it is limited to Christian 
theology; but it can also be developed in relation to other religious traditions. Its 
attempt to do descriptive justice to the current state of the field results in allowing 
both for the separation of theology and religious studies and for their integration. 

There are five types on a continuum, of which the two extremes will be described 

Type I 

This type gives complete priority to some contemporary philosophy, worldview, prac- 
tical agenda or one or more academic disciplines. In its academic form it subjects 

70 Key approaches to the study of religions 

Christian theology to 'general criteria of intelligibility, coherence, and truth that it 
must share with other academic disciplines' (Frei 1992: 2). Immanuel Kant ( 1724— 
1804) is seen as the main historical exemplar of this in modernity. He applied 
his criteria of rationality and morality to theology and offered an understanding 
of religion 'within the bounds of reason alone'. In terms of the previous discussion, 
a Kantian Type 1 is in line with a conception of religious studies which insists on 
a particular set of epistemological criteria being met by any theology that is to be 
admitted to the academy. It therefore excludes other types of theology mentioned 
below. It also gives philosophy (of a particular type) priority as the main cognate 
discipline of theology. 

Other versions of Type 1 use different external criteria to judge theology — for 
example, an ecological worldview, or a feminist ethic, or a political programme or 
an imaginative aesthetic. 

Type 5 

This type takes Christian theology as exclusively a matter of Christian self-descrip- 
tion. It is the 'grammar of faith', its internal logic learnt like a new language through 
acquiring appropriate conceptual skills. It offers a scriptural understanding or a tradi- 
tional theology or version of Christianity as something with its own integrity that 
is not to be judged by outside criteria. All reality is to be seen in Christian terms, 
and there is a radical rejection of other frameworks and worldviews. Examples include 
some types of fundamentalism (such as those seeing the Bible as inerrant and all- 
sufficient for theology) and also more sophisticated conceptions of a religion as a 
distinctive and embracing 'language game' or 'world of meaning'. In terms of the 
previous discussion, Type 5 is in line with a conception of theology which prefers 
separation from religious studies and other disciplines. 

The two extremes of Types 1 and 5 can be seen to come together in their tendency 
to see everything in terms of some given framework (whether Christian or non- 
Christian) and to cut off the possibilities for dialogue across boundaries. 

Types 2, 3 and 4 

Between the two extremes come three types that in various ways incorporate dialogue. 

Type 2 tries to correlate general meaning structures with what is specifically 
Christian. It interprets Christianity consistently in terms of some contemporary phil- 
osophy, idiom or concern, while trying to do justice to the distinctiveness of 
Christianity. One example is the German theologian Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976), 
who reconceived the Christian Gospel in terms of existentialist philosophy. The 
overall integration is biased towards the general framework, and so this type is close 
to Type 1. 

If Type 2 moves in the other direction towards a correlation which does not 
attempt a comprehensive integration, then it becomes Type 3. This non-systematic 
correlation is a thoroughly dialogical form of theology. Theological questions, 
methods and positions are continually being correlated with other questions, methods 
and positions. Theology can learn a great deal from other disciplines and positions 
without giving a single one overarching significance, and it is only from within the 

Theology 71 

process of dialogue that judgements can be made. Schleiermacher is an example of 
this type, as is Paul Tillich (1886-1965) who correlated fundamental questions about 
life and history with the meaning offered by Christian symbols and ideas. 

Type 4 gives priority to Christian self-description, letting that govern the applic- 
ability of general criteria of meaning, truth and practice in Christian theology, yet 
nevertheless engaging with a range of disciplines and with other worldviews and 
theological positions in ad hoc ways. It does not go to the extreme of Type 5, but 
still insists that no other framework should be able to dictate how to understand the 
main contents of Christian faith. It is 'faith seeking understanding', basically trusting 
the main lines of classic Christian testimony to God and the Gospel, but also open 
to a wide range of dialogues — not least because God is seen as involved with all 
reality. The Swiss theologian Karl Barth is of this type, resisting the assimilation of 
Christian faith to Western culture and ideologies, especially that of the Nazis. Type 
4 sees Type 3 as inherently unstable: there can be no neutral standpoint from which 
to carry on dialogues, and therefore there has to be a basic commitment for or against 
Christian faith - which yet needs to be tested in encounter with other positions. A 
favoured cognate discipline of this type of theology as practised in Britain and North 
America is the more descriptive (rather than explanatory) types of social science. 

Assessment of the types 

Any complex theology is not likely to fit neatly into a single type, and the purpose 
here is not to set up neat pigeonholes enabling all theologians to be labelled. Many 
will display subtle blends and uncategorizable positions which resist easy description. 
Rather, the aim is to portray a range of types which spans the field and enables a 
judgement about theology in relation to other disciplines, including those embraced 
in religious studies. The judgement is that, while Type 5 is likely to be least at home 
in the university and Type 1 least at home in the Christian community, Types 2, 3 
and 4 can, in different ways and with different points of tension, be at home in both. 
There are Christian communities that would exclude the first four types, and there 
are universities that would exclude the last four types, but these ways of drawing 
boundaries are controversial and many institutions are more inclusive. The practical 
conclusion is that an overview of the discipline of theology, as it has developed in 
universities carrying forward the European tradition, argues for a definition that can 
embrace all five types. This in turn supports the argument above in the previous 
section that it makes academic as well as theological sense to see the field as whole, 
embracing theology and religious studies. The different types of theology construe 
the field very variously, and particular institutions and traditions need to take funda- 
mental decisions about which types they embrace — but that is the case in many 
other fields too. 

Beyond Christian theology 

The above typology has been deliberately tradition-specific. The next question is 
whether something like those types do justice to the other religious traditions which 
are the examples being used in this chapter: Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. 
There was a blossoming of the study of these and other religious traditions in the 

72 Key approaches to the study of religions 

universities of Europe and the US in the nineteenth century, though apart from the 
special case of Judaism the study was mostly outside theological faculties. A major 
factor in the rise of the field of religious studies was an attempt to do fuller academic 
justice to religions other than Christianity. From a standpoint at the beginning 
of the twenty-first century it is possible to see that attempt as having two main 
phases, the second still in progress and provoking much debate. 

The first phase involved the establishment of religious studies over against theology 
(usually against confessional Christian theology). The main concern was for properly 
academic study through disciplines such as the others described in this Companion. 

The second phase has accompanied the multiplication of universities around the 
world and the growth of the study of theology and religious studies in them. The 
last half of the twentieth century has seen an unprecedented expansion in higher 
education and of the disciplines and subdisciplines that study religions. One crucial 
feature of this second phase has been that considerable numbers of academics and 
students in universities now study their own religion as well as the religions of others. 
This has led to debates similar to those which have surrounded Christian theology 
in the European tradition. How far is it appropriate to be a Jew and pursue critical 
and constructive Jewish thought in a university? If a Buddhist academic is discussing 
ethical issues, how far is it appropriate to develop Buddhist positions? Increasingly, 
the answer has been that it is appropriate; then the debate moves on to consider 
the criteria of appropriateness. But, once it is granted that members of traditions can 
contribute in such ways to academic discussions and utilize a range of disciplines in 
doing so, then what has been defined above as academic theology is being practised. 
The result is that the type of religious studies which defined itself against Christian 
confessional theology is now being challenged to 're-theologize'. Can it recognize the 
academic validity of inquiries, debates and dialogues which are theological (in the 
sense of seeking wisdom about questions of meaning, truth, beauty and practice 
relating to the religions and the issues they raise), which use various academic 
disciplines, and which relate to other traditions besides Christianity? 

The impetus towards such theology has been strengthened by suspicion directed 
towards the ways in which religions have been studied by Western academics. For 
example, the accounts of Judaism by non-Jews (especially Christians) have been 
subjected to thorough critique (especially by Jews); Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism 
have struggled to resist the imposition of 'orientalist' identities projected by Western 
scholars; and Christians have often judged accounts of their faith to be distorted by 
post-Enlightenment academic presuppositions and criteria. In particular there has 
been a rejection of 'ideologies of neutrality' and associated positions such as the 
dichotomy between fact from value, or the separation of knowledge from ethics and 
faith. The key point has been: 'no one stands nowhere', and it is desirable that reli- 
gious traditions (together with genders, races, classes and cultures) have their own 
academic voices that can speak from where they stand. Huge questions of episte- 
mology, ethics, theology and the meaning of 'academic' are at stake here and are 
likely to remain in contention; but once they have been raised they are hard to 
suppress, and many institutions have created the settings for pursuing them. One 
such setting is the integrated field of theology and religious studies. 

The typology suggested by Frei is an attempt to devise a conception of the field that 
fits such a setting. It is applicable to religions besides Christianity insofar as each is a 

Theology 73 

tradition (or set of traditions) whose traditional identity can be rethought and devel- 
oped in the present according to the five types. For example, there are those who assim- 
ilate Buddhist ideas and practices to a variety of non-Buddhist frameworks (Type 1); 
others are 'fundamentalist', or convinced of the self-sufficiency of a particular set of tra- 
ditional Buddhist ideas and practices (Type 5); and others arrive at more dialogical 
identities which balance differently between those extremes (Types 2, 3 and 4). 

Yet each of the sample religions with which this chapter is concerned has a distinc- 
tive history in relation to theology or its analogues. In line with this chapter's limited 
scope (focussing on theology in the university tradition begun in western Europe in 
the Middle Ages, continued today in research universities that are successors to that 
tradition in and beyond Europe and America, and concerned especially with the 
relation between theology and religious studies) it is not possible to discuss the history 
of each tradition in detail. What are offered below are some considerations from the 
standpoint of each of the five traditions as they take part in theology and religious 
studies in contemporary universities. Most space is given to Judaism as the tradition 
which has, besides Christianity, been most intensively engaged with academic study 
and thought in the universities of Europe, North America and more recently Israel. 


The term 'theology' is often considered suspect among Jewish thinkers. This is partly 
because theology is sometimes seen as being about the inner life of God, which has 
not usually been a Jewish concern. Partly it has been a reaction of a minority against 
oppressive and dominant confessional theology: it has not been safe for Jews to 
condone public or university theological talk, since Christians (or others) could use 
it to seek domination or to proselytize. Partly, too, theology has been seen as abstrac- 
tive, intellectualizing and even dogmatizing (in the bad sense) instead of practice- 
oriented discussion about community-specific behaviour. Perhaps the most acceptable 
term is Jewish religious thought. 

The main institution for articulating Jewish religious thought has been the rabbinic 
academy, whose origins are in the 'yeshivah', a centre of learning and discussion 
going back to the Mishnaic period in Palestine, and continuing in the Talmudic 
academies of Palestine and Babylonia, and later in centres spread around the dias- 
pora. The discourse of these centres combined study of biblical texts (with a view 
to expounding both its plain sense and also its relevance to traditional and current 
issues), ethical discussion, jurisprudence, literary interpretation, folk science and much 
else. The rabbinic academy is still the normative institution for the religious thought 
of most orthodox Jewish communities, and there are equivalents in other forms of 
Judaism — for example, rabbinical seminaries, Jewish colleges and other institutes. 

There have been other non-university centres of Jewish religious thought besides 
the rabbinical academies. Beginning in the late Persian or Second Temple period, 
sages, and later rabbis and textual scholars, included devotees of the esoteric circles 
that generated Jewish mystical practice and literature or 'kabbalah'. These kabbal- 
istic circles conducted 'theology' in the sense of studying the inner life of God, or 
at least those dimensions of God that are processual and descend into levels of human 
consciousness. Hasidism is a large, popular movement of lived kabbalah, and some 
contemporary Jewish academics are paying increasing attention to kabbalistic study. 

74 Key approaches to the study of religions 

One influential tradition in Jewish thought has been sustained by intellectuals, 
scientists and statesmen working in a succession of empires and civilizations — Persian, 
Greek, Roman, Islamic, Christian, modern European and American. They have been 
social and cultural brokers in statecraft, finance, medicine, the sciences and schol- 
arship, and have produced much sophisticated and often influential thinking which 
mediates between Jewish and non-Jewish interests and understandings and which 
might be categorized under Types 2, 3 and 4 above. Examples include Moses 
Maimonides (1125-1204) in medieval Spain, the Jewish doctors, mystics, scientists, 
scholars and diplomats of Renaissance Italy, the Jewish intelligentsia in twentieth 
century New York, and communities of lively religious thought which flourish outside 
the universities in Israel. 

Jews were long excluded from the Christian-dominated university tradition of 
Europe, but since their entry into these academic settings they have, considering 
their small numbers, been disproportionately influential in many disciplines. Some 
have approximated to Types 1 and 2 above, attempting to accommodate Jewish reli- 
gious traditions to the categories of Western thought. This was developed in German 
universities in the nineteenth century, Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786) being a 
major figure. Others studied Judaism according to the canons of Wissenschaft (see 
p. 63), with a strong historicist tendency. This tradition, known in German as 
Wissenschaft des Judentums, remains the strongest influence on Jewish academic reli- 
gious study. At its heart is the study of Jewish texts by explaining how and in which 
contexts they were composed, and what their sentences meant to those who composed 
and received them. This study is 'theological' in the sense used in this chapter insofar 
as it sometimes argues that the religious meaning of the texts is exhausted by what 
can be elicited through its methods. 

Out of this tradition of Wissenschaft have come more complex forms of interac- 
tion, brokerage or dialogue with various types of academic inquiry, perhaps best 
labelled 'humanistic Jewish studies'. The study of texts has been opened up by such 
approaches as hermeneutical theory, structuralism and deconstruction, and the range 
of human and natural sciences has been related to Jewish concerns. In terms of the 
types above, it has most affinities with Type 3, but relates happily to any of the first 

Finally, a recent development has called itself 'postcritical' or 'postliberal', some- 
times welcoming the label 'Jewish theology'. Influenced by literary studies, postmod- 
ernism, and twentieth-century Jewish philosophies originating in Germany, France 
and America, these thinkers try to integrate three elements: philosophical inquiry; 
academic studies of texts, society and history; and traditional forms of rabbinic text 
study and practice. Its main affinities are with Type 4 in its concern to maintain a 
community-specific identity while learning from a wide range of dialogues — including 
dialogues with other religious traditions. 


Islamic theology shares some of the strategies and concerns of Christian and Jewish 
discourse about God, since all three traditions are rooted in ancient Semitic narra- 
tives of a just and merciful Creator, and have historically evolved under the influence 

Theology 75 

of Greek thought. For some three centuries after the death of the Prophet Muhammad 
(632 CE) the theology of the new religion was stimulated by encounters with several 
eastern Christian traditions, a debt which was later to be repaid when Avicenna, 
Ghazali and Averroes exercised profound influence on theologians of the Latin west 
in the Middle Ages. In spite of these convergences, however, the term 'theology' has 
no one Arabic equivalent, and theology in the sense used in this chapter has been 
pursued across many of the traditional Islamic disciplines. 

One such subject area is Islamic jurispurdence (usul al-fiqh), which incorporates 
discussions of moral liability, natural law, the status of non-Muslims and other topics 
which received exhaustive treatment of a theological nature. 

Sufism, Islam's highly diversified mystical and esoteric expression, also included 
systematic expositions of doctrine and cosmology in which mystical and exoteric 
teachings were juxtaposed, frequently in order to justify speculative or mystical 
insights to literalists. 

A further discipline of great historic moment was Islamic philosophy (falsafa or 
hikma), which inherited late Greek philosophical syntheses and developed them into 
multiple religious systems. Many of these were regarded as too unscriptural and were 
therefore frequently confined to the status of private belief systems among elite circles. 

Interacting with all these disciplines was kalam, conventionally translated as 
'Islamic theology'. This is primarily a scriptural enterprise, applying forms of reasoning 
of Greek origin to the frequently enigmatic data of revelation. Ghazali (d. 1111) and 
Shahrastani (d. 1153) incorporated aspects of the falsafa tradition to shape kahm 
into a highly complex and rigorous Islamic worldview. Their tradition, known as 
Ash'arism, is still taught as Islam's orthodoxy in most Muslim countries. Orthodox 
status is also accorded to Maturidism, a theology which prevails among Muslims in 
the Indian subcontinent, Turkey, Uzbekistan and the Balkans. The debates between 
these schools are due mostly to the greater weight attached to rationality by 
Maturidism over against the comparatively more scriptural Ash'arism. 

There have been various institutional settings for these types of theology, perhaps 
the most distinguished being Al-Azhar University in Cairo. In the twentieth century 
there have been many new universities. Those in Saudi Arabia, for example, have 
rejected the forms of reasoning from scripture found in both Ash'arism and 
Maturidism in favour of a strict literalism. These 'fundamentalists' (Salafis) are in a 
polemical relationship with traditional institutions such as Al-Azhar, and it may be 
that this engagement has become a more significant and widespread activity than 
the engagement with the discourses of modernity. In terms of the types used in this 
chapter, the main debates are between a Type 4, which inhabits and interprets the 
Qur'an with the aid of traditional Greek- influenced rationality, and a Type 5, which 
finds the Qur'an self-sufficient. 

So far there has been comparatively little Muslim theology analogous to Types 1, 
2 or 3. This is partly because of the widespread acceptance of the divinely inspired 
status of the Qur'anic text, and a rejection of the relevance of text-critical method- 
ologies. There are some modern Muslim theologians open to post-Kantian approaches 
to metaphysics, found in more secular institutions such as Dar al-Ulum, a faculty of 
Cairo University or the Islamic Research Academy of Pakistan. Perhaps partly because 
the Qur'an contains comparatively little cosmological or other material that might 
clash with modern science, the defining controversies in modern Islam concern the 

76 Key approaches to the study of religions 

extent of the relevance of medieval Islamic law to modern communities. So it is in 
matters of behaviour rather than belief that the greatest range of types is found. 

It is in universities in the European tradition that some of the potentially most far- 
reaching developments are now taking place. Due to the establishment of large Muslim 
communities in Europe and North America, making it now the second largest religion 
in the West, Muslim scholars and theologians are increasingly present in faculties of 
theology and religious studies. The study of Islam has shifted there away from 'oriental 
studies', and new forms of dialogue and interpretation are being developed. 

Hinduism and Buddhism 

Hinduism and Buddhism both have long and complex intellectual traditions of 
thought in many genres and many types of institutions. As with the other religious 
traditions, the university plays only a small role in contributing to Hindu and 
Buddhist religious or theological thought in the sense of a pursuit of wisdom. 
'Hinduism' and 'Buddhism' themselves are terms which became popular due to 
Western interpreters in the nineteenth century but which mask the deeply plural 
phenomena that more developed understanding of these traditions now suggests. 
Nineteenth century university studies often approached these from the angle of 
philology, with more systematic studies of the religious dimensions frequently shaped 
by colonial concerns. The earlier conceptualizations of Hinduism concentrated on 
the Sanskritic (Brahmanical or elitist) forms as representative, with continuing 

India in the twentieth century has been one of the most important countries for 
dialogue between religious traditions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity 
and Islam. This dialogue has been deeply affected by Hindu and Buddhist approaches 
that insisted not only on theoretical and doctrinal discussion and disputation, in 
which argument (tarka) based on textual exegesis (mimamsa) plays a prominent part 
(and where the argumentation has been vigorously intra- and inter- religious in both 
traditions), but also on experience or realization of the goal (anubhavalsaksat-kara, 
dhyana, ultimately moksa/nirvana), in what is an integrated grasp of truth- in- life. 

This in turn encouraged suspicion of Western academic study applied to religion, 
especially the stress on the 'objectivity' of truth and knowledge and the tendency to 
separate understanding from practice. In Indian universities, the secular constitution 
led to religious traditions being studied mainly in departments of philosophy in ways 
similar to the more 'neutralist' approaches to religious studies in the West, and this 
reinforced the alienation of universities from the more wisdom-oriented inquiries of 
those concerned with the contemporary development of religious traditions and 
dialogue between them. In other countries of the East, however, there are other 
patterns - in Thailand, for example, where Buddhism is for all practical purposes the 
state religion, the study of Buddhism is privileged in the universities. 

The numbers of Hindus and Buddhists living in diaspora in the West, together 
with large numbers of Westerners who now practice versions of these faiths, has 
begun to transform the situation of Hinduism and Buddhism in Western universi- 
ties, where the late twentieth century saw a blossoming of posts related to them. 
The pattern has been repeated of a move from 'oriental studies' to 'religious studies' 
to a pluralist situation where oriental studies and religious studies continue, but there 

Theology 77 

are also Hindus, Buddhists and others engaged in deliberating about questions of 
meaning, truth, beauty and practice with a view to wisdom for the contemporary 


So far, Christian theology has been dealt with mainly in its history as a discipline, 
its relation to religious studies and its types. The contemporary situation of Christian 
theology is described using the five types in Ford 2005. 

Of the traditions described above, the closest parallel is with Judaism, and there 
are analogies in Christian theology for most of the strands in Jewish theology. There 
is rapid growth at present in studies and constructive contributions to 'theology and 
. . .' topics, the accompanying fields including notably philosophy, ethics, politics 
(leading to 'theologies of liberation'), the natural and human sciences, culture and 
the arts, gender (leading to feminist and womanist theologies), race, education, other 
religions and postmodernity. The German and other European and North American 
academic traditions continue strongly, but the most obvious new development in the 
twentieth century has been that of theological traditions in other countries and 
cultures. African, Asian, Latin American and Antipodean theologies have all emerged 
(often displaying acute tensions between the types described above), and many of 
these are networked in transregional movements. 

At the same time, major church traditions have undergone theological trans- 
formations, most noticeably the Roman Catholic Church through the Second Vatican 
Council. At present the Orthodox Church in countries formerly Communist is having 
to come to intellectual (and other) terms with exposure to massive global and local 
pressures; and the Pentecostal movement (reckoned to number over 300 million) is 
beginning to develop its own academic theology. Between the churches there have 
developed ecumenical theologies and theologies advocating or undergirding common 
action for justice, peace and ecological issues. As with other religious traditions, the 
spread of education has meant that far more members of churches are able to engage 
with theology, and there are local and international networks with university- 
educated laypeople addressing theological issues in relation to the Bible, tradition, 
and contemporary understanding and living. 

The future of theology 

Viewed globally, the vitality of theology in the twentieth century was unprecedented: 
the numbers of institutions, students, teachers, researchers, forms of theology and 
publications expanded vastly. It is unlikely that this vitality will diminish. Questions 
of meaning, truth, beauty and practice relating to the religions will continue to be 
relevant (and controversial), and the continuing rate of change in most areas of life 
will require that responses to those questions be constantly reimagined, rethought 
and reapplied. Higher education is likely to continue to expand, and there is no sign 
that the increase in numbers in members of the major religions is slowing. The 
convergence of such factors point to a healthy future, at least in quantitative terms. 
Theology in universities is likely to continue according to a variety of patterns, 
such as the three mainly discussed in this chapter. Quantitatively, the main setting 

78 Key approaches to the study of religions 

for theology or religious thought will continue to be institutions committed to partic- 
ular religious traditions. There will also continue to be university settings in which 
religious studies is pursued without theology. My speculation is that the nature of 
the field, including its responsibilities towards academic disciplines, religious commun- 
ities and public discourse, will also lead to an increase in places where theology and 
religious studies are integrated. The history of the field in recent centuries has not 
seen new forms superseding old ones (religious studies did not eliminate theology in 
universities) but the addition of new forms and the diversifying of old ones. Beyond 
the integration of theology and religious studies, further diversification is imaginable 
as theology engages more fully with different religions and disciplines and attempts 
to serve the search for wisdom through each. 

Within the university it is perhaps the theological commitment to wisdom that 
is most important and also most controversial. Seeking wisdom through pursuing 
fundamental questions in the context of dialogue between radical commitments is 
never likely to sit easily within universities. Yet in a world where the religions, for 
better and for worse, shape the lives of billions of people, there is a strong case 
for universities encouraging theological questioning and dialogue as part of their 
intellectual life. 


1 I am indebted to four other scholars who are joint authors of parts of this chapter: John 
Montag, SJ on the early history of theology in Europe, Timothy Winter on Islam, Julius 
Lipner on Hinduism and Buddhism (all from the University of Cambridge); and Peter 
Ochs on Judaism (University of Virginia). 


Capps, Walter H., Religious Studies. The Making of a Discipline (Fortress Press, Minneapolis 
1995). Surveys the field well, but pays little attention to theology except as part of comparing 

de Lange, Nicholas, Judaism (Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 1986). A lucid 
overview, with chapters on theology and eschatology but other chapters on further aspects 
of thought (Torah and tradition, law, ethics and mysticism), which are embraced in the 
definition of theology used in this chapter. 

Ford, David F. (ed.), The Modem Theologians. An Introduction to Christian Theology since 1918 
3rd edn (Blackwell, Oxford 2005). Covers the main Christian theologies of the period, 
both individual thinkers and movements, as well as the debates and critical questions about 

Frei, Hans W., Types of Christian Theology, eds George Hunsinger and William C. Placher (Yale 
University Press, New Haven and London 1992). Offers a typology of modern theologies, 
sensitive to historical and institutional contexts. 

Harvey, Peter, An Introduction to Buddhism. Teachings, History and Practices (Cambridge 
University Press, Cambridge 1990). Perceptive and comprehensive, especially good on reli- 
gious thought and its relation to practice. 

Keown, Damien, Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, Oxford 1996). 
Brief, clear, interesting and reliable. 

Lipner, Julius, Hindus: their Religious Beliefs and Practices (Routledge, London 1996). Perhaps 
the best comprehensive introduction to Hinduism. 

Theology 79 

Martin, R.C., Woodward, M. and Atmaja, D., Defenders of Reason in Islam (Oneworld, Oxford 
1997). A perceptive up-to-date account of intellectual debates in Islam. 

Montgomery Watt, W., Islamic Philosophy and Theology (Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh 
1985). Clear, accurate, descriptive, though elementary; mainly concentrating on the 
medieval period. 

Pelikan, Jaroslav, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine 5 vols 
(Chicago University Press, Chicago 1989). An exemplary historical theology. 

Waines, David, An Introduction to Islam (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1995). Wide- 
ranging and especially strong on theology. 

Chapter 5 

Philosophy of religion 

Peter Vardy 

Philosophy of religion in the Western tradition uses reason to engage with central 
areas of religious belief — it is primarily concerned with religious truth claims and 
less concerned with the cultural or sociological understanding of religions, which are 
a matter for religious studies departments. For many people today, philosophy of 
religion provides a route to thinking deeply about questions of ultimate meaning and 
value without having to first adopt the faith assumptions of a particular religious 
group. However, it can also be disturbing and challenging for religious believers as 
it forces them to engage with issues they may not previously have considered in any 
depth. At the least, philosophy of religion keeps alive the great religious questions 
in a secular and post-modern age. The questions about whether there is a God or 
not, how language about God can be understood, what is means to claim truth and 
how the claimed existence of an all powerful and good God can be reconciled with 
a world full of suffering and evil are, arguably, the most important questions any 
individual can face and it is all too easy to neglect them. 

Philosophy and theology have, over the centuries, been handmaids — mutually 
reinforcing and supporting each other. It is only since the early twentieth century 
that a divide opened up with many US and British philosophy departments increas- 
ingly having no interest in God or religious questions — however, it is important to 
recognise that this is a new phenomena. Most of the greatest philosophers have had 
a profound interest in metaphysical questions — questions about the nature of ultimate 
reality, the nature of being and the existence or non-existence of God. Philosophy 
of religion is the modern subject that uses the rational tools of philosophical enquiry 
to examine religious issues and religious claims. 

A distinction needs to be made between philosophy of religion and philosophical 
theology although the boundaries between them are not clear. Philosophical theology 
uses philosophy within the assumptions of religious faith — it does not tend to chal- 
lenge the basic faith assumptions but uses philosophy in the service of faith. The 
great Islamic Kalam school of philosophy is a good example of traditional philo- 
sophical theology. It derived from the world's greatest centres of philosophy and 
learning in Baghdad and Cairo in the eighth to the tenth century of the Christian 
era, when Europe was in the mud of the dark ages. It was Islamic philosophical 
theology that preserved the works of possibly the greatest philosopher of all time - 
Aristotle (384-322 BCE). Aristotle's works had largely been lost in the West and were 
re-imported into the University of Paris (the greatest Western university at the time) 
shortly before the medieval Christian writers such as the great thirteenth-century 

Philosophy of religion 81 

figures St Albert the Great (1206-1280) and St Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274) used 
Aristotle to provide a philosophical understanding of Christianity. 

Philosophy of religion, by contrast, tends to stand outside faith assumptions and 
to examine religious claims from a neutral and dispassionate standpoint. There are 
no claims that are not subject to scrutiny and no assumptions that cannot be chal- 
lenged. In Europe, philosophy of religion tends to be dominant. This is not surprising 
since there is a difference of priority between the US and Europe. In the US, reli- 
gious belief is taken for granted much more than in Europe. In Europe there is a 
much greater degree of scepticism about religion and, therefore, a neutral standpoint 
is the one most likely to command interest and support, as it has few preconceptions 
and none that depend on a faith or cultural background. 

There is also a difference between Catholic and Protestant Christians in their atti- 
tudes to philosophy of religion. In the Catholic Christian tradition, philosophy and 
theology have always been compulsory fields of study for anyone entering the priest- 
hood. It is not considered possible to do good theology without being trained in 
philosophy, and philosophy without theology is held to be a limited discipline. The 
two go together. In the Catholic tradition the concentration tends to be on the great 
thinkers of the past (such as St Augustine (354-430) and St Thomas Aquinas who 
will be considered later) whereas in the Protestant tradition more modern figures 
tend to dominate. Many Protestants, however, would be less comfortable with the 
study of philosophy and some, at least, would consider that studying philosophy of 
religion should be avoided as it risks undermining faith. They would accept philo- 
sophical theology but would reject philosophy of religion precisely because it may 
challenge the fundamental assumptions of their belief system. 

Three different ways that philosophy of religion attempts to prove the existence 
of God are worth considering. 

Traditional arguments for the existence of God 

In the Catholic tradition natural theology is theology based on reason and, there- 
fore, on philosophy, whereas revealed theology is based on revelation. Nothing in 
revelation is held to contradict reason, but revelation can go further than reason. 
Philosophic argument can, it is held, arrive at the existence of God and basic know- 
ledge about God's attributes but revelation is needed for doctrines like the incarnation 
or the Trinity. Natural theology is often held to start with proofs for the existence 
of God, of which the most famous are St Thomas Aquinas' 'Five Ways' of attempting 
to prove the existence of God. 1 Four of these five arguments derived from Aristotle. 
These are all a posteriori arguments, which means that they start from some features 
of the universe that can be experienced and then attempt to argue from them to 
the existence of God. 

The starting points of the 'Five Ways' differ. They argue from: 

1 Motion — in the universe we see things in motion and since it is not possible 
to have an infinite regress of causes, there must be a 'Prime Mover', something 
which is itself unmoved but causes everything else to move. This is God. 

2 Causation — in the universe we see things and events caused by other things 
and other events. Since it is not possible to have an infinite regress, there must 

82 Key approaches to the study of religions 

be some uncaused cause, some cause which is not caused to come into existence 
by anything else and on which all other causes depend. This is God on whom 
all causes now depend. 

3 Contingency - everything in the universe depends on something else, everything 
within the universe is contingent. The universe as a whole is the sum total of 
contingent things and is itself contingent. Since nothing can come from nothing, 
there must be something necessary, something that cannot not-exist and this 
necessary being is God on which the whole universe now depends. 

4 From grades of perfection in things - some things are more perfect than others 
and this implies that there must be something supremely perfect — namely God. 

5 Design - the universe is filled with purpose and everything in the universe is 
created with a sense of purpose. This points to the ultimate purpose of the 
universe — God. 

All these arguments can be challenged, for although their starting points are widely 
held to be reasonable in that they start from readily accepted features of the world, 
the steps in the argument are, at least, debatable. For instance, the claim that there 
has to be an ultimate unmoved mover, an uncaused cause is frequently questioned. 
St Thomas Aquinas' arguments seek to arrive at a God who is 'de re necessary', neces- 
sary in and of God's self and which cannot not exist and depends on nothing else 
for its existence. Both the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) and the 
Prussian Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) rejected the very idea of anything which is 
necessary in and of itself — they held that the only sort of necessity is 'de dicto neces- 
sity', necessity based on the way words are used. For instance 'Spinsters are female' 
is a de dicto necessary statement - it is necessarily true because of the way words are 
used. The word 'spinster' includes the idea of being female and it does not make 
sense to deny this statement because the meaning of words guarantees that the state- 
ment must be true. Hume and Kant, however, said that no existing thing can be 
necessary. Everything that exists may or may not exist, everything is contingent. 
Only propositions are necessary. So they reject the conclusion at which Aquinas 
tries to arrive as they argue that nothing — not even God — can exist necessarily. 

Aquinas would reply to this by saying that everything in the universe is indeed 
contingent, everything may or may not exist. But that on which the universe depends 
is not like anything in the universe. God alone cannot not exist. God, therefore, is 
in a category of God's own. God is unlike anything in the universe as God is outside 
time and outside space. This leads to the key ideas in the Catholic Christian under- 
standing of God — God is held to be wholly simple, timeless, spaceless and lacking 
in any potential. Everything in the universe is actual in that it exists but it has a 
whole array of potentialities. Human beings have a body, arms, legs, brain etc. — in 
this respect they are actual. However they also have a range of potentialities including 
the ability to walk, swim, run, love, learn, reproduce and many others. God is alone 
in having no potentialities God is fully actual. God is fully what it is to be God. To 
support this, Aquinas quotes from Exodus 3.14 when God reveals God's nature to 
Moses — God says 'I am who I am'. For Aquinas, this supports the idea that God is 
fully actual, fully what it is to be God. If God is outside time and space, it also 
follows that God has no body and cannot change in any way — God is therefore 

Philosophy of religion 83 

Modern versions of arguments for God's existence - the 
Kalam argument 

Perhaps the most important of the modern arguments for the existence of God is put 
forward by the American philosopher, William Lane Craig. 3 Craig has put forward a 
new version of the so-called 'Kalam argument' — it is called this because it originated 
among Islamic philosophers of the Kalam school. This argument can be summarised 
in three statements: 

1 Everything that begins to exist has a cause of its existence; 

2 The universe began to exist; 

3 Therefore, the universe has a cause for its existence. 

It is difficult to prove the first of these claims, although one may feel that it is intuitively 
probable. Craig says: '. . . it is so intuitively obvious that I think scarcely anyone could 
sincerely believe it to be false' 4 yet some hold that at the micro-particle level there are 
uncaused events and, even if a single beginning could be shown not to have a cause, 
then premise 1 is false and the argument collapses. Paul Davies has argued that this 
assumption is false 5 as it appears that electrons can pass out of existence at one point 
and re-appear somewhere else. Craig has replied to this 6 saying that this does not affect 
the Kalam argument, as in modern physics a vacuum is not nothing, but rather a state 
of minimal energy. The electron fluctuations, he holds, are due to vacuum fluctuations 
and these electrons are not coming into existence from nothing as his critics maintain. 
Craig puts forward a number of arguments to support premise 2 by maintaining 
that the universe must have begun to exist since an actual infinity is impossible. He 
argues, for instance: 

1 An actual infinite cannot exist; 

2 A beginningless temporal series of events is an actual infinite; 

3 Therefore a beginningless series of events cannot exist. 

The first of Craig's arguments in support of his first premise appeals to the idea of a 
library with an infinite number of red books and an infinite number of black 
books. If this library actually existed it would follow that there are as many red books 
as black books and as many red and black books together as there are red books. This, 
however, is absurd as the situation would arise that the subset of red books, which is 
half the total of red and black books, is both half the total and yet is equal to it. So, 
Craig maintains, an actual infinite is impossible - infinity is a possibility in the world 
of mathematical ideas but nowhere else. Craig is arguing that those who hold that 
the universe has existed for an actual infinite amount of time are mistaken since no 
such thing as an actual infinite can exist. This seems persuasive. 

The real problem occurs with the claim that a beginningless temporal sequence is 
an actual infinite. Aristotle considered that there was a difference between an actual 
and a potential infinite — an actual infinite was one that existed at a particular time 
whereas a potential infinite was one that was never arrived at but which one could 
move towards through the passage of time. If Aristotle is right, then Craig is wrong, 
however, Craig's point is that the universe is actual and if the universe did not have 
a beginning then the universe is an actual infinite - and this is absurd. 

84 Key approaches to the study of religions 

Craig's second argument stems from the discovery of background radiation in the 
universe by Bell Laboratories scientists in 1965. This pointed to an initial explosive 
creation of the universe which has been termed the 'Big Bang'. The Big Bang seems 
to support the origin of the universe from a singularity when time, space, matter and 
energy all came into existence. However this is by no means proven and there may 
have been a preceding state (even if we do not know what it was), which would 
explain the eventual existence of the universe. We can express this by asking whether, 
if the universe began with a Big Bang, there was a preceding state of affairs that 
caused the Big Bang. This is problematic as in the first few hundred thousandths of 
a second after the singularity, time does not exist and no-one quite knows what 
happens. It may even be nonsensical to talk of a 'preceding' state of affairs as many 
scientists hold that time came into existence with matter immediately after the 
singularity and if this is accepted then there can be no preceding state. 

At the Big Bang, the initial singularity exploded at a rate faster than the speed of 
light. Nuclear explosions took place, giving rise to concentrations of hydrogen and 
helium and some of the lithium found in inter-stellar space. After, perhaps, 300,000 
years, the initial fireball dropped to a temperature a little below the present tempera- 
ture of the sun allowing electrons to form orbits rounds atoms and releasing photons 
or light. This initial flash can today be measured as background radiation at microwave 
frequencies equivalent to a temperature of about 2.7 kelvin. (The kelvin scale begins 
at absolute zero, which is the lowest possible temperature and at this temperature all 
molecular activity stops. This temperature is equivalent to —273.16 degrees centigrade.) 

The Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe is widely accepted and appears 
to explain a great deal. If this is true it would support the claim that the universe 
is not infinite. However, recent observations cast doubt on it and it is far from clear 
that the theory is adequate. Even if it is adequate, it seems that a great deal still 
remains to be explained that the conventional Big Bang theory cannot explain. The 
problems with the Big Bang theory include the following: 

1 The Hubble Space Telescope has been measuring distances to other galaxies and 
these observations suggest that the universe is much younger than the Big Bang 
Theory implies. This is because the universe seems to be expanding much faster 
than previously assumed, this implies a cosmic age of as little as 8 billion years 
— about half the current estimate. On the other hand, some other data indicates 
that certain stars are at least 14 billion years old. 

2 A group of astronomers who have become known as 'The Seven Samurai' have 
found evidence of what they call 'The Great Attractor', located near the southern 
constellations of Hydra and Cantaurus, which draw stars towards it. There seems 
no basis for such a 'great attractor' on the basis of the Big Bang Theory, which 
sees galaxies and stars flying apart after the initial explosion. 

3 Big Bang theorists maintain that the initial explosion was extremely smooth - 
this is based on the uniformity of the background radiation left behind as 
throughout the universe this background radiation seems (according to current 
measurements) to be much the same. However, Margaret Geller, John Huchra 
and others at the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophy have found a large 
number of galaxies about 500 million light years in length across the northern 
sky and, if these observations are accurate, then the smoothness and uniformity 

Philosophy of religion 85 

of the Big Bang would seem to be questionable. If the Big Bang was not smooth, 
then questions arise as to why the variations occur and, indeed, whether there 
was a Big Bang in the first place. 

There are a number of alternatives to the Big Bang Theory, including the idea of 
'continuous creation' whereby matter is continually coming into existence perhaps 
in different parts of the universe. No certainty is possible. The Big Bang Theory 
remains at best a plausible theory, but no more than that at present and there is too 
much evidence against it to have any certainty. Even if the Big Bang Theory is 
accepted, it is compatible with two rival hypotheses: 

1 The Oscillating Universe model. This holds that the universe goes through an 
infinite series of cycles, expanding and then contracting into a singularity before 
expanding again. If this is the case, then the universe does not need a begin- 
ning, as there would be an infinite series of 'big bangs' and an infinite series of 
contractions of the universe. 

2 The Infinitely Expanding Universe model. This holds that there was an initial 
explosion from the singularity and the universe will keep expanding forever from 

There is now some evidence that the Infinitely Expanding Universe model is more 
likely than the Oscillating model. If this is right - and it is still far from clear - this 
could point to the universe having had a beginning and thus support the Kalam 
argument's second premise. However there is no certainty. It must be recognised that 
science really cannot help to decide questions in philosophy. One problem with the 
Kalam argument is that the more it seems to rely on science, the more vulnerable 
it is to science offering alternative explanations. 

It is also significant to note that all the arguments considered so far end up with 
the claim that there is a cause of the universe — the identification of this cause with 
God is, as with St Thomas Aquinas' arguments, problematic. It also depends on 
holding that God did not begin to exist (as clearly then one could ask what caused 
God?). God, to fulfil the requirements of the Kalam argument, needs to be the 
uncaused cause, the de re necessarily existent being — in other words the argument 
points to the sort of God whose essence included existence. As we have seen, Hume 
and Kant challenged the very idea of such a necessary being. 

Modern arguments for God's existence - the religious 
experience argument 

William P. Alston is one of the leading US philosophers of religion and he has 
argued, in a number of papers and books, for religious experience as a pointer to the 
existence of God. 7 Alston distinguishes between: 

1 'Experiences of God', which, he says, can more generally be described as 'supposed 
experiences of God' where 'supposed' does not cast doubt on the authenticity 
of the experience but draws attention to the fact that many such claimed 
experiences may be interpretative; 

86 Key approaches to the study of religions 

2 Direct experiences of God, which excludes, for instance, being aware of God 
'through the beauties of nature, the words of the Bible or a sermon'. 

Alston makes this distinction because he considers that these direct experiences are 
most likely to be plausibly regarded as presentations of God to the individual (St Teresa 
says that God 'presents Himself to the soul by a knowledge brighter than the sun'). 

What is more, Alston concentrates on non-sensory experiences as (since God 
is purely spiritual) they have a greater chance of presenting God as God really is, 
whereas sensory experiences are normally confined to objects in space and time. 
Alston acknowledges that, for instance, Immanuel Kant argues that human beings 
can only have sensory experiences as they can only experience things through their 
five senses and, since God is not an object in space and time, God cannot be experi- 
enced by the individual. However Alston considers that this represents a lack of 
imagination. As he says: 'Why should we suppose that the possibilities of experien- 
tial givenness, for human beings or otherwise, are exhausted by the powers of our 
five senses?'. Animals, he claims, have senses wider than ours so: 'Why can't we 
envisage presentations that do not stem from the activity of any physical sense organs, 
as is apparently the case with mystical perception?'. Alston refers here to 'mystical 
perception' rather than 'experience' as it involves something other than the normal 
five senses. He advocates what he terms a 'perceptual model' of mystical experience 
in which something presents itself to us. In a way it is a very simple form of percep- 
tual awareness in which anything — a house, a book or a person — presents itself to 
us in a similar way. Alston's causal theory of perception claims that religious experi- 
ence is caused by the presence of God and subsequent members of the religious 
community pick up the referent from those who went before. 

Critics of Alston reject this view — they hold that religious belief does not rise 
and fall with evidence in the way that Alston thinks it does. For instance, Richard 
Gale says that he feels sorry for religious believers of the type that Alston describes, 
because Gale considers that the beliefs of current religious believers would always be 
vulnerable to new evidence and therefore these are constantly vulnerable to being 
shown to be false. Against Gale, the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813— 
1855) argued in the mid-nineteenth century that this is exactly the position that 
religious believers are in. They are 'suspended over 70,000 fathoms', staking their 
lives on an 'if that may be false. This is why, for Kierkegaard, faith involves such 

Alston acknowledges freely that we may 'see' things differently depending on 
our perceptual schemes and prior assumptions, but effectively he is claiming that 
there is something to 'see', something that presents itself to us. The 'perceptual 
model' relies on a 'theory of appearing' in which: '. . . perceiving X simply consists 
in X's appearing to one, or being presented to one, as so-and-so. That's all there is 
to it ... .' 

To perceive X is simply for X to appear to a person in a certain way. Alston says 
there are three conditions that must be met if X is to appear: 

1 X must exist; 

2 X must make an important causal contribution to be experience of X; and 

3 That perceiving X must give rise to beliefs about X. 

Philosophy of religion 87 

Clearly, given these conditions, Alston recognises that to show that perceptual expe- 
riences are genuine would first mean showing that God exists (see 1 above). What 
he aims to show is the following: 

1 Mystical experience is the right sort of perception to constitute a genuine 
perception of God if the other requirements are met; and 

2 There is no bar in principle to these other requirements being satisfied if God 
does exist. 

Crucially he says: 'This adds up to a defence of the thesis that it is quite possible 
that humans do sometimes perceive God if God is 'there' to be perceived. In other 
words, the thesis defended is that if God exists, then mystical experience is quite 
properly thought of as mystical perception.' 

Alston takes this claim to be self-evident and feels that it cannot be denied unless 
one is to claim that all those who report such experiences of God are confused about 
them. Alston accepts that people's reports are not infallible, but still considers that 
they should be taken seriously. If a person considers that he/she is having an experi- 
ence, then he or she is in the best position to judge this to be the case. Alston 
maintains that the only reason for rejecting the claims to experiences is that some 
people are sceptical about the claim that God exists. What, however, Alston does 
not do is to seek to show why such scepticism may not be well founded. 

Alston acknowledges that believers make use of their prior frameworks but, then, 
he claims we do this with normal experience. If, he says, he sees his house from a 
great height (when in an airplane), he certainly sees his house and he may learn 
something new but it would basically be as he expected his house to look. Similarly 
when experiencing God, God is experienced as believers expect God to be experi- 
enced — there is no difference between ordinary experiences and religious ones. 

Alston's claim, when analyzed, is very modest. All he really is establishing is that 
if one believes in God already then it is reasonable that mystical experiences should 
be taken as genuine. This, however, misses out the real issue that is the major part 
of the debate — which is why one should take experiences of God as any more 
veridical than experiences of the Loch Ness Monster or of UFOs. 

However, as Richard Gale points out, supporters of religious experience hold that 
most religions and mystical experiences support their claims whereas the absence of 
such experiences does not serve to disconfirm what is claimed to be experienced. All 
that Alston may have demonstrated is that if one is a religious believer one may 
have grounds, from within a faith culture or perspective, to claim that religious expe- 
riences refer. However this does not serve to confirm why anyone should accept or 
reject the perspective in the first place — and this, surely, is what the argument from 
religious experience is intended to achieve. 

Richard Swinburne, former Professor of Philosophy of Religion at the University 
of Oxford, seeks to argue for more than Alston. 8 Swinburne examines all the various 
arguments for the existence of God and maintains that none of them succeed in 
proving that God exists. However, when these arguments are put together they make 
a cumulative case that indicates that there is a reasonable probability that God exists. 
Given this probability, then Swinburne says it is reasonable to rely on two principles 
that point to the existence of God. These are: 

88 Key approaches to the study of religions 

1 The Principle of Credulity maintains that it is a principle of rationality that (in 
the absence of special considerations such as the person involved being unreli- 
able or the conditions being such that any observation should be subject to 
doubt) if it seems to a person that X is present, then probably X is present. What 
one seems to perceive is probably so. 

2 The Principle of Testimony maintains that, in the absence of special consider- 
ations, it is reasonable to believe that the experiences of others are probably as 
they report them. 

Swinburne maintains that if we refuse to accept the first of these principles we land 
in a sceptical bog. Religious experiences should, therefore, be given initial credibility 
unless there is some evidence against them. The aim of the Principle of Credulity 
is to put the onus on the sceptic to show why reports of religious experience should 
not be accepted. This is important — all that the principle seeks to establish is initial 
credibility and that claims to religious experience should not be dismissed out of 
hand. The sceptic should, it is held, produce argument or evidence to show why 
claims to religious experience should not be accepted as valid — in the absence of 
such argument or evidence then the claims should be taken at their face value. 

The Principle of Testimony simply relies on the inherent trustworthiness of other 
people. It asks us to believe reports of experiences unless we have some grounds for 
not doing so. If, for instance, a person is known to be unreliable, is on drugs, suffers 
from delusions or otherwise has a previous history that would cast doubt on his her 
or reliability, then we would be right to be suspicious of what we are told. However, 
if the person is apparently of sound mind, of reasonable intelligence and is gener- 
ally reliable, then there is no reason, in principle, why we should not believe them. 

Caroline Franks Davies builds on Swinburne's approach. 9 Effectively she and 
Swinburne work with a cumulative argument. They maintain that if all the argu- 
ments for and against the existence of God are considered, they are fairly evenly 
balanced. Some of the arguments strengthen the likelihood that God exists while 
others (for instance those concentrating on the problem of evil and suffering) make 
the existence of God less likely. If these are all taken together, then, it is held, it is 
neither highly probable or highly improbable that God exists; the scales of proba- 
bility are evenly balanced. Given this situation, it is reasonable to rely on reports of 
religious experience to tip the scales in favour of belief that God exists. 

It may be argued that neither Swinburne nor Davies give sufficient weight to 
counter arguments against belief in God 10 — for instance they give scant attention 
to the problem of evil and while their arguments may be persuasive to an existing 
believer, to an unbiased observer they would have rather less force. The existence 
of evil does significantly reduce the probability that the God of Christian theism 
exists — although how one balances the probability for and against God's existence 
will inevitably be a largely subjective matter about which opinions will differ. 

Language about God 

Based on philosophic analysis, as we have seen above, Aquinas and the Catholic tra- 
dition hold that it is possible to prove that God exists and that God is totally unlike 
anything in the universe as God is de re necessary, wholly simple, perfectly actual, 

Philosophy of religion 89 

timeless, spaceless and bodiless. It follows that using language about God is going to 
be exceptionally difficult as human language is derived from the spatio-temporal uni- 
verse. How can language applied to things in space and time be applied to a God who 
is outside space and time? Moses Maimonidies (1125-1204), the great Jewish thinker 
who so influenced Aquinas and many medieval Christian thinkers, held to the Via 
Negativa — the negative way which claimed that God could not be talked about in 
positive language. It was only possible to say what God was not. He accepted the dif- 
ficulties of using language about God. Aquinas rejected any univocal language — that 
is language about God that places God into the same sort of category as objects in the 
universe. To say that God is love is not to say that God loves like human beings do 
but more so, this would be to make God an anthropomorphic 'superman' type figure 
instead of having an entirely different order of existence to human beings. 

Aquinas tackled the problem of language about God through the use of analogy 
and metaphor. As the whole created order depends on God for its existence, it is 
possible to use language drawn from this created order provided it is clearly recog- 
nised that the content of this language will be severely limited. It is true that God 
is love, but God does not love like human beings do — given that God is immutable, 
bodiless and outside space and time this would not be possible. God then loves in 
a timeless way which is largely unknowable. Analogy preserves the otherness of God 
but at the price of arguing that language about God has very little content. 

Perhaps the best way of speaking of God, when God is understood as wholly simple, 
timeless and spaceless, is through metaphor. The Hebrew and Christian scriptures 
are full of metaphors about God — God is a rock, a vine, a strong tower, a mighty 
fortress, a loving father. None of these are to be taken literally. Metaphors reach out 
and seek to capture something of the reality of God. As Janet Martin Soskice says, 
metaphors refer to God without describing God in literal terms. They capture 
something of the reality of God by gesturing towards God. 

This way of understanding God can also contribute to the problem of evil and 
moral theology. Something is good according to Aristotle if it fulfils its nature. This 
is a central plank in the Natural Law tradition of ethics in which acts are wrong if 
they go against the common human nature that all human beings are held to share. 
Ethics, however, forms a separate discipline from philosophy of religion, although 
the stance an individual takes on religious questions is likely to influence their 
perspective on ethics. 

The wholly simple, timeless God and the everlasting God 

Throughout more than two thousand years there has been a tension between the 
God of the philosophers and the God of the Christian and Jewish scriptures. Many 
attempts have been made to reconcile the two but almost always one will be given 
priority. In the Catholic Christian tradition, it is the de re necessary God that is 
given priority and the scriptures are then interpreted in the light of this under- 
standing. It follows that whenever in the Bible God is described as doing any action 
that involves time or potential, this is treated not as being literally true but, at most, 
a metaphor. Thus when in Genesis Ch. 6, God is described as regretting making 
human beings because of the extent of their sin, Catholic philosophers would hold 
that this did not mean that God regretted in the way humans regret since this would 

90 Key approaches to the study of religions 

involve a change in God. Any change in God is impossible since God is timeless 
and immutable. Similarly to claim that God walked in the garden with Adam or 
wrestled with Jacob is not to be taken literally as this would again involve change. 
Protestant philosophers and theologians, however, tend to start from a different 
starting point. They take their starting point from Martin Luther (1483-1456), John 
Calvin (1509-1564) and other Protestant reformers who gave pride of place to the 
Bible whereas philosophy (particularly the philosophy of St Thomas Aquinas) was 
largely rejected. Protestant theologians tend, therefore, to place God in time and to 
say that God is everlasting, without beginning and without end. If God is everlasting, 
time passes for God — the future is future and the past is past. 'A thousand ages in 
His sight are but an evening gone' as the hymn writer says, but nevertheless an 
evening has passed. God is not dominated by time as human beings are in their short 
lives, nor does God's character change with the passage of time but, nevertheless, 
time does pass for God. 

Reformed epistemology 

Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that is concerned with the study of the 
sources and basis for how human beings know things, it is therefore concerned with 
what underpins human claims to make true statements. One of the most significant 
modern movements in philosophy of religion comes from the US with the work of 
Alvin Plantinga. Plantinga is described as a 'reformed epistemologist' as he comes 
from the Protestant reformed Christian tradition and his work looks at how the 
claims of believers to know that God exists can be justified. He rejects attempts to 
argue for the existence of God (natural theology) as he considers that these argu- 
ments put reason into central place instead of revelation. God is held to have revealed 
truth to the world and it is this revelation that should be given precedence, not 
human reason, which is 'fallen' due to the sin of Adam and Eve as well as subse- 
quent sin. Karl Barth (1886-1968), probably the greatest Protestant theologian of 
the twentieth century, said that of all the reasons for rejecting Catholicism, natural 
theology was the greatest as it relied on reason and not revelation. The Protestant 
tradition, and reformed epistemologists, rely on revelation having priority over reason. 
Alvin Plantinga defines the set of beliefs a person holds together with the rela- 
tions that hold between these beliefs as the person's 'noetic structure' (in other words 
all that they know and the way they know these things). Plantinga claims that the 
Christian religious believer sees the word correctly because they have accepted the 
Christian revelation and no justification is required for the basic Christian beliefs. 11 
Plantinga calls this view 'Foundationalism'. The question then is whether a propo- 
sition is one that stands in need of evidence, or whether it is within the foundation 
of all that an individual knows. Put simply, this is asking whether belief in God 
requires justification or proof in the way that natural theology claims. Plantinga asks: 
'Might it not be that my belief in God is itself in the foundations of my noetic struc- 
ture?' If this is right, then there is no need to prove that God exists. This means 
that the believer in God is not required to justify his or her belief - this belief is 
foundational and requires no justification. The reformed epistemology holds that 
belief in God is 'properly basic' as it requires no justification and the believer has a 
'properly ordered noetic structure', which means that their way of seeing and under- 

Philosophy of religion 91 

standing the world is correct because they have been given the grace of God to see 
the world rightly. In the same way that I cannot prove that a tree is in front of me 
or that I am typing this with my hands or that I am in the presence of my eldest 
daughter in Boston when I meet her - nor does a believer require any proof for the 
existence of God, since God is so obvious to them when they read their Bible or 
pray that talk of justification is out of place. A believer does not, therefore, need 
proof that God exists. 

This is an attractive position but it suffers from real difficulties. Christians may 
claim that their belief in God, their belief that Jesus is the son of God and that the 
Holy Spirit is the third person of the Divine Trinity is part of the foundations of 
their noetic structure and that they do not require justification for this. Muslims may 
claim that their belief in Allah and the Holy Prophet Mohammed is part of the 
foundations of their noetic structure and that they do not require justification for 
this. Buddhists may claim that that there is no God and that the Buddha's teaching 
about the transitory status of everything in the world and the route out of suffering 
and change does not require justification. In short, there are so many belief systems 
in the world, each of which can claim that their beliefs do not require justification, 
that reformed epistemology seems unsatisfactory. The reformed epistemologists may 
claim that they have been given God's grace to enable them to see the world correctly 
and that others are in error due, perhaps, to the effects of sin or the refusal of God's 
grace, but all this does is to retreat behind a claim to truth that cannot be justified. 


Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889—1951 ) 12 was probably the great philosopher of the twenti- 
eth century and his influence has been profound. He argued that the whole subject of 
epistemology — the search for foundations for knowledge — rested on a mistake. Instead 
people are educated into a 'form of life', into a culture. Within this culture certain 
things are taken for granted and it simply does not make sense to doubt them. This 
applies, he argued, in the case of religious belief. Children are educated into the 'form 
of life' of their parents and are taught the language that expresses this form of life. Proofs 
are simply irrelevant. It is this basic approach that has given rise to non- realism. 13 

A growing approach to religious belief is found among some European philoso- 
phers of religion who have been influenced by Wittgenstein such as Don Cupitt, 
D.Z. Phillips 14 or Gareth Moore 15 who identify two problems with traditional 

1 The arguments for the existence of God favoured by natural theology do not 
succeed. They are vulnerable to assumptions which may be persuasive to existing 
believers but will not be convincing to non-believers and, therefore, whilst they 
may help to support existing faith, they do not form the basis for belief. What 
is more, belief in God for most believers is not based on argument - rather 
believers share in a culture into which they are born and educated and 
philosophical proofs are irrelevant within these cultures. 

2 Reformed Epistemology, with its dependence on revelation, does not succeed in 
establishing truth as so much depends on the community into which one is 
educated and the assumptions made in this community. Nevertheless non-realists 

92 Key approaches to the study of religions 

support reformed epistemologists in arguing that it is a mistake to look at 
foundations for faith. 

To understand the non-realist approach it is first necessary to explain the difference 
between two theories of truth. 

Realism is the theory of truth which holds that a statement is true if it corre- 
sponds to the state of affairs that it describes. Thus 'The mayor of Los Angeles is 
56 years old' is true if (this means if and only if) there is a mayor of Los Angeles 
and this mayor is 56 years old. What makes the statement true is that it corresponds 
to the state of affairs which it describes. What would make the statement false is 
that it fails to correspond. Most people, most of the time, are realists. Realists affirm 
bivalence - this means that a statement is either true or false even though it cannot 
be known to be true or false. Thus the statement 'there are yellow frogs on a planet 
circling a star in the Milky Way galaxy' is either true or false depending on whether 
there is a planet circling one of the stars and depending on whether or not yellow 
frogs live there. There is at present no way of knowing whether or not this is the 
case, but the realist will say that either it is or it is not true or false depending on 
the state of affairs to which the statement is claimed to correspond. Most religious 
believers are realists — they maintain that their faith claims are true because they 
correspond to the state of affairs to which they refer. Thus Christians, Muslims and 
Jews will generally claim that their claim that 'God exists' is true because this claim 
corresponds to the existence of the God who created and sustains the world. Were 
it not for the existence of this being or spirit (whether timeless or everlasting) the 
claim that 'God exists' would be false. 

The problem is that, if someone is a realist, they are vulnerable to challenge from 
the person who asks 'How do you know that your claim is true?' Natural theologians 
will reply 'wait a minute and we can show how this can be proved to be true'. 
Reformed epistemologists will respond 'We do not need proof, our claims are true 
because we have been given the grace to accept the revelation of God which guar- 
antees the truth of our claims'. The trouble is that neither position is going to be 
convincing to non-believers. Non-realists claim they have the answer. 

Non-realists reject all attempts to either prove that God exists or to show that 
God probably exists. Phillips argues that if the rationality of belief in God is to be 
shown, then 'belief in God is not a matter of believers entertaining a hypothesis' 16 . 
He mocks the probability approach saying that on this basis Psalm 139 would read 
'If I ascend into heaven it is highly probable that thou art there: if I make my bed 
in hell, behold it is highly probable that thou art there also'. 17 Phillips therefore 
maintains that the probability approach argues for a 'method for establishing the 
rationality of religious belief . . . which actually distorts the religious belief. What 
it is to have faith in God does not depend on philosophic argument at all, nor on 
showing that religious language corresponds to some independent state of affairs. 

Non-realism is a theory of truth. 18 It holds that what makes a statement true is 
not correspondence but coherence - a statement is true if it coheres or 'fits in with' 
other true statements made within a particular 'form of life'. Non-realists maintain 
that people are educated into religious forms of life by their parents, their schools 
and the religious institutions that they attend. Within these forms of life certain 
statements are accepted as true without question. For the non-realist, truth rests not 

Philosophy of religion 93 

on correspondence to some state of affairs that is independent of language - instead 
truth depends on coherence within a particular form of life. In other words, within 
a particular religious form of life certain things are 'held fast' by what surrounds 
them; they are accepted as true without question. What makes them true is this 
acceptance. Truth is not something established by independent enquiry — instead 
truth rests on what is agreed. Truth, therefore, depends on agreement within a 
community and different and contradictory things may be true within different 

The non-realist will, therefore, agree with the reformed epistemologist that no 
justification is required for the existence of God or other central religious claims. 
They will agree that these statements are true — but they will differ about what makes 
them true. The reformed epistemologist will claim that these statements are true 
because they correspond to some independent state of affairs whereas non-realists 
will reject correspondence entirely and will instead maintain that they are true 
because they are accepted as true within the religious community concerned. As the 
Catholic theologian Gareth Moore puts it 'Religious truths are not discovered, they 
are made' 19 — in other words people live the story that their religion tells them and, 
to those who participate in a religion, this story is true. However what makes it true 
is not some state of affairs independent of the story but the story itself. 

Thus within Islam it is true that there is one God and Mohammed is his prophet, 
within Catholicism it is true that God is Trinitarian, that Mary was assumed bodily 
into heaven and that the Pope, when speaking ex-Cathedra, is infallible. Within 
Judaism it is true that Abraham is the father of the Jewish nation and that God 
promised the land of Palestine to the descendents of Abraham. These claims do not 
conflict with each other since truth is internal to each form of life. 

Non-realists claim that God is real and God exists — but they do not mean by 
this that there is a being or spirit called God who exists ontologically independent 
of the created universe that this God creates and sustains in existence. Instead 'God' 
is real and exists within the community of faith, within the form of life of those 
who worship, pray and place God at the centre of their lives. Jesus told his disciples 
that he would be present whenever two or three gathered in his name and, to the 
non-realist believer, this is true. When believers meet and speak of Jesus and pray 
to him Jesus is real and Jesus exists. Effectively 'God' and 'Jesus' are ideas that are 
created by communities of faith and that give those who have faith meaning and 
purpose. The key point is that, for non-realists, language about God does not refer 
any reality or state of affairs beyond itself, it is true because it is accepted and used 
by those within the community of faith. 

The great advantages of the non-realist approach is that there is no need for justi- 
fication of truth claims in religion. It recognises that religious faith claims are not 
held tentatively, that the community is recognised as central and that it can explain 
both how religious communities develop their truth claims (and decide, for instance, 
what is orthodoxy and what is heresy) over time. It also explains how different reli- 
gions have such different truth claims. The disadvantage, from the point of view of 
many believers, is that it 'does violence' (to use an expression from Ludwig 
Wittgenstein) to what most ordinary believers say that they mean by their claims. 
Most believers consider, when they say that Jesus died on the cross and rose on the 
third day, that this is true because this is what actually happened. The non-realist, 

94 Key approaches to the study of religions 

by contrast, will see this as being truth as this is part of the Christian story but, in 
the final analysis, the Christian story is a human creation. 

The problem of evil 

Possibly the greatest intellectual challenge to face the monotheist faiths (monotheism 
represents the claim that there is a single God who created, sustains and is inter- 
active within the universe) is the problem of evil. If God exists and is all powerful 
and wholly good, how can evil exist? If God is good, surely God would wish to get 
rid of evil and if God is omnipotent then surely God has the power to get rid of 
evil. Since evil clearly exists, critics will claim that either God does not exist or God 
is limited in some way (either by not being omnipotent or not being wholly good). 

Various replies have been formulated to this challenge and they all revolve around 
the claim that God has good reason for either allowing evil to exist because of the 
need to give human beings freedom or else that evil is the means used by God to 
bring God's purposes about. These two approaches are generally referred to as the 
Augustinian and Irenaean approaches. 

The fourth-century thinker St Augustine is possibly the most influential figure in 
Christian history apart from Jesus and St Paul. He has had a profound effect on both 
Catholic and Protestant theology and his approach to the problem of evil is of central 
importance. 20 Augustine argued against a group called the Manicheans who held that 
there were two cosmic forces in the universe — one good and one bad — and that 
these forces were engaged in a cosmic struggle. Manichean Christians saw themselves 
on the side of the force of good in a struggle against the forces of evil. The great 
advantage of this approach is that all evil can be regarded as stemming from the 
force of evil, and the good God can be absolved from responsibility. St Augustine 
recognised that this was not a Christian position and therefore sought to produce a 
theodicy which would justify and explain why the one, omnipotent God would allow 
evil to exist. His reply drew on the Hebrew scriptures and, in particular, the creation 
story of Genesis and also the philosophy of Aristotle. 

The Genesis creation stories show God creating the earth and the first human 
beings perfect, and then disorder and evil entering the world as a result of the Fall 
— in other words as a result of the disobedience of Adam and Eve and the devil who, 
according to Augustine, was an angel who rebelled against God. God allowed human 
beings freedom but when he placed Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden he gave 
them one simple command — that they were not to eat of the tree in the middle of 
the garden. They disobeyed and because of this disobedience sin and evil not only 
entered the human world but Augustine saw this as having a cosmic effect. Natural 
evil — including death, disease, pain and suffering, entered the world as a result of 
the Fall. To us this may seem an extraordinary claim but Augustine held that the 
whole of creation was disrupted as a result of the disobedience of Adam and Eve. 
God, therefore, was not to blame for the Fall — the blame lies entirely on the first 
humans and also the misuse of Angelic freewill by the angel, Lucifer, who became 
the devil. Augustine argued that evil was not a positive thing, rather it was a priva- 
tion of goodness. It was where some good that should be present was absent. So if 
a seagull does not have a wing, it suffers a privation of the good it should have. If 
a human being cannot see, then this, also, is a privation. Anything that falls short 

Philosophy of religion 95 

of what it should be is to that extent suffering an evil. Humans suffer evils when 
they fall short physically of the perfect state that they should be in. However, humans 
can also use their freewill to act in ways that go against their common human nature 
and in this case they also fall short of what they should be, not this time due to evil 
that they suffer but due to moral evil which they freely choose to perform. 

This provided the intellectual basis for Catholic moral theology which sees certain 
acts as 'intrinsically evil' as they go against the purpose of what it is to be human. 
Homosexuality or artificial birth control are, for instance, considered morally evil in the 
Catholic tradition as any action must be open to the possibility of procreation — since 
this is defined as the purpose of human genitalia. If genitalia are used for any purpose 
other than reproduction this use will be a morally wrong act. Moral evil, therefore, 
occurs when individuals use their free will to act in ways that are contrary to their God- 
given nature. Much, of course, will then depend on how human nature is defined. 21 

God allows evil to exist but does not cause evil. God allows evil because only if 
human beings are free can they choose to serve and to love God or to reject God 
and put self in the centre of their lives. God is not responsible for evil — human 
beings are. St Augustine, therefore, absolved God from responsibility for evil and 
puts the blame firmly on human beings. 

St Thomas Aquinas follows this Augustinian approach except that, unlike 
Augustine, he did not blame natural evil on the Fall — instead he considered that 
anything that fulfils its purpose or nature is good. A volcano or tidal wave is not, 
therefore, a defect in creation caused by the Fall instead these things are part of a 
properly functioning universe and are good in that they fulfil their nature. Only when 
they are looked at from a purely human centred view may they appear to be evils. 
If one gets in the way of a lava stream from a volcano, then clearly suffering and 
probably death will result — but this does not make the volcano bad. The volcano 
is doing what it is intended to do. 

The alternative, Irenaean approach to the problem of evil rejects the Fall as a 
literal event and instead sees God creating human beings in God's image but their 
having to move from this image to the likeness of God. This is based on a debat- 
able reading of Genesis 1:26 in which God is said to have created human beings in 
God's image and likeness. Humans, in this view, have the potential to grow into the 
likeness of God by, for instance, developing the virtues including love, compassion, 
forgiveness, etc. but this potential is not realised in the 'raw' human state. Irenaeus 
separates 'image' and 'likeness' and holds that human beings are created in God's 
image but need to move to be like God — to say humans are created in the image 
of God means that they have the potential to grow to be like God but this poten- 
tial is not actualised. John Hick, a modern Protestant theologian, has developed what 
has come to be called the 'Irenaean theodicy' 22 although Irenaeus never used it for 
this purpose. Hick argues that this world is a 'vale of soul making' and that human 
beings are created at an 'epistemic distance' from God — this means that they are 
created without a direct knowledge of God. The world is religiously ambiguous and 
created so that God's existence is not obvious — this is done in order to maintain 
human freedom and to allow each individual to choose to set out on a path towards 
God or to reject this possibility. 

In this view, God creates evil and suffering deliberately and uses these as the means 
by which human beings are drawn closer to God. Through suffering and difficulties 

96 Key approaches to the study of religions 

human beings can grow closer to God — they can move from image to the likeness of 
God, which is seen as the main task of life. Suffering is held to have positive advan- 
tages — a person can be leading a successful life, have a happy family and all may be 
going well, but then someone close to them may die, they may develop cancer, 
relationships may break down and they may be forced to reappraise what is really 
important in life. For some, suffering can provide a means to reorientate priorities and 
to focus on developing the virtues and seeking God rather than money, power and 
reputation. However, it can be argued against this that suffering can also destroy indi- 
viduals and lead them away from God. Hick would reply to this by saying that suffering 
can provide the opportunity to grow closer to God, whether an individual takes 
advantage of this opportunity is only something that he or she can decide. 


Perhaps the challenge of non-realism set above is the greatest challenge that modern 
believers and theologians have to face. Is the circle of religious language and prac- 
tice a closed one where truth depends on internal coherence alone, or does this 
language refer beyond itself to a transcendent referent? The arguments for the circle 
being closed are strong — young people tend to be 'formed' into the religion of their 
parents and brought up into the cultural way of life of their community (which 
includes dress, diet and moral codes and the whole cultural understanding that makes 
up a religious form of life). This fits in well with the non-realist understanding and 
with the claim that religious truth is relative to the community to which one belongs. 
However most of the great religions would resist this idea and would maintain that 
their culture and beliefs are grounded in realist truth claims. Whether this is the 
case or not may be the central issue for religious studies and theology today to face 
— although, sadly, few academics in these areas seem to be aware of this philosophic 
challenge or to take it seriously. 


1 Thomas Aquinas 'The Classical Cosmological Argument', in M. Peterson et al. 2001, 
pp. 184-7. 

2 The best modern discussion of this understanding of God is by G. Hughes in The Nature 
of God, 1995. 

3 W.L. Craig 1979. 

4 W.L. Craig 1994, p. 92. 

5 P. Davies 1984, p. 200. 

6 W.L. Craig and Q. Smith 1993, p. 121-3. 

7 W.P. Alston 'Perceiving God', in Journal of Philosophy 83 (1986), 655-666; also in Stump, 

E. and Murray, M. (eds) 1999, pp. 142-149; and in Plantinga, A. and Wolterstorff, N. 

8 R. Swinburne 1991. 

9 C.F. Davies 1989. 

10 Cf. P. Vardy 1992. 

11 A. Plantinga 1979, p. 12. 

12 L. Wittgenstein 1986. 

13 Although whether non-realists are faithful to Wittgenstein is highly debatable. Cf. 

F. McCutcheon 2001. 

14 D.Z. Phillips 1988. 

Philosophy of religion 97 

15 G. Moore 1988. 

16 D.Z. Phillips 1988, p. 9. 

17 D.Z. Phillips 1988, p. 10. 

18 Realism and non-realism are dealt with in more detail in P. Vardy 2003 a. 

19 G. Moore 1988. 

20 This is set out in P. Vardy and J. Arliss 2003a. 

21 These issues are dealt with in more detail in P. Vardy 2003b. 

22 John Hick 'An Irenaean Theodicy', in Stump, E. and Murray, M. 1999, pp. 222-227. 
Also John Hick 'Soul-Making and Suffering' in Adams, M.M. and Adams, R.M. 1990, 
Chapter 10. 


Adams, M.M. and Adams, R.M. 1990, The Problem of Evil, Oxford, OUP. 
Craig, W.L. 1979, The Kalam Cosmological Argument, London, Macmillan. 

1994, Reasonable Faith, Wheaton, 111., Crossway. 

and Smith, Q. 1993, Theism, Atheism and the Big Bang Cosmology, Oxford, Clarendon 

Davies, B. (ed.) 1998, Philosophy of Religion: A Guide to the Subject, London, Cassell. 

(ed.) 2000, Philosophy of Religion: A Guide and Anthology, Oxford, OUP. 

Davies, GF. 1989, The Evidential Force of Religious Experience, Oxford, Clarendon Press. 
Davies, P. 1984, Superforce, New York, Simon & Schuster. 

Hick, J. (ed.) 1990, Classical and Contemporary Readings in the Philosophy of Religion, Englewood 

Cliffs, N.J., Prentice Hall. 
Hughes, G. 1995, The Nature of God, London, Routledge. 
Kierkegaard, S. 1954, Fear and Trembling, trans. Walter Lowrie, Princeton, Princeton 

University Press. 
McCutcheon, F. 2001, Religion Within the Limits of Language Alone. Aldershot, Ashgate. 
Mackie, J.L. 1992, The Miracle of Theism: Arguments For and Against the Existence of God, 

Oxford, Clarendon Press, Chapter 5. 
Markham, I. 1998, The Truth and Reality of God, Edinburgh, T. & T. Clark. 
Moore, G. 1988, Believing in God, Edinburgh, T. & T. Clarke. 

Peterson, M. et al. (eds) 2001, Philosophy of Religion: Selected Readings, Oxford, OUP. 
Phillips, D.Z. 1988, Faith after Foundationalism, London, Routledge. 
Plantinga, A. 1979, 'Is belief in God rational?' in Rationality and Religious Belief, C. Delaney 

(ed.), Notre Dame, Ind., University of Notre Dame Press. 

and Wolterstorff, N. (eds) 1984, Faith and Rationality: Belief in God. London, University 

of Notre Dame Press. 

Stump, E. and Murray, M. 1999, Philosophy of Religion: The Big Questions, Oxford, Blackwell. 

Swinburne, R. 1991, The Existence of God, Oxford, Clarendon Press. 

Trigg, R. 1997, 'Theological realism and anti-realism' in Companion to Philosophy of Religion 

P. Quinn and C. Taliaferro (eds), London, Blackwell. 
Vardy, P. 1992, The Puzzle of Evil, London, Fount. 

2003a, What is Truth?, London, John Hunt Publishing. 

2003b, Being Human, London, Darton, Longman & Todd. 

and Arliss, J. 2003a, The Thinkers Guide to Evil, London, John Hunt Publishing. 

and 2003b, The Thinkers Guide to God, London, John Hunt Publishing. 

Wittgenstein, L. 1986, On Certainty, London, Harper Collins. 

Chapter 6 

Religious studies 

Donald Wiebe 

Including the notion of 'religious studies' as one discipline among many for descrip- 
tion and analysis in a volume like this suggests that there is broad agreement among 
those who study religion in the modern Western university as to the meaning of the 
term. Unfortunately, this is not the case. There is a vast literature committed to 
providing an understanding of the nature and value of the enterprise, but, as I shall 
show, there is little agreement to be found among those who have put their hand 
to the task. Not only is the term 'religious studies' ambiguous with respect to the 
enterprise it designates, but the very idea of 'a discipline' is itself vigorously contested; 
and it is quite obvious that whether or not religious studies can justifiably be called 
a discipline depends wholly upon the understanding of 'discipline', which is opera- 
tive. As one scholar has put it, the term is used with more passion than precision 
(Benson 1987: 91). There is, moreover, considerable debate about the nature of the 
modern university within which 'religious studies' as 'a discipline' exists, so that to 
equate 'religious studies' with 'the academic study of religion' provides little — if any 
— clarification as to the nature or structure of the enterprise beyond information 
about its institutional location. Indeed, depending upon the assumptions one makes 
about the raison d'etre of the modern university, there is no guarantee that 'religious 
studies' as 'the academic study of religion' can even be clearly differentiated from 
the scholarly study of religion carried on in other institutions, including religious 
institutions. It is no surprise, therefore, that some who have attempted to set out 
the meaning of the term 'religious studies' have remarked that perhaps the clearest 
thing that can be said about it is that it 'appears to be the designation of choice for 
the academic study of religion in the college and university setting' (Olson 1990a: 
549). There is, perhaps, equal agreement that this designation for the study of reli- 
gion, 'legitimated' by virtue of inclusion in the curriculum of the university, came 
into use only after the Second World War; primarily since the 1960s. Providing a 
singular, overarching definition of 'religious studies' as it is carried out in the modern 
university, therefore, is hardly possible; at the very least, such an exercise is unlikely 
to be either persuasive or helpful. To understand 'religious studies' is to understand 
the diverse and nuanced way in which the term is used. And in a sense, one must 
follow the principle that to understand a concept it is important to be familiar with 
its history. This is not to say that no generalization is possible, but it does require 
that a thorough knowledge of the debate over the use of the term is essential before 
proposing one use of the concept over another. Much of this essay, therefore, will 
consist of a critical examination of the diverse ways in which the notion is under- 

Religious studies 99 

stood in the reflective methodological literature in the field. Given the proliferation 
of relevant publications, however, this review cannot hope to be comprehensive. 
Accordingly, I restrict my analyses to Anglo-American (including Canadian) treat- 
ments of the subject, beginning with the attempts to provide a definitive statement 
on the notion in representative encyclopedias and encyclopedic dictionaries. Despite 
the diversity of views that will emerge in this analysis of the literature about the 
study of religion as it is currently carried out in colleges and universities, I shall 
attempt in the conclusion to draw out some warrantable generalizations about 
'religious studies' that may assist those coming new to the field. 

Encyclopedic treatments of 'religious studies' consider the term to refer to a new 
kind of study of religious phenomena - that is an exercise free from narrow ecclesi- 
astical, if not also, more general religious interference or influence. Religious studies, 
that is, is often taken to be other than a religious quest or undertaking and, unlike 
earlier scholarly studies within the framework of the academy (colleges and univer- 
sities), seems to work on the assumption of religion's status as a purely social 
phenomenon. There is agreement not only that there existed a scholarly study of 
religion in the university prior to the emergence of religious studies departments in 
the modern university, but also that it was religious or theological in character. 
('Theology' is often used in the literature to refer not only to a particular discipline 
but also, more generally, to denote any kind of confessional or religious orientation.) 
Indeed, not only was it religious, it was parochial, exclusivist, and therefore sectarian 
and ideological. As I show here, however, the encyclopedia portraits are not inter- 
nally coherent in their accounts of this enterprise and therefore leave much to be 
desired with respect to defining the term. 

Those who consult the new Encyclopedia of Religion (Eliade 1987) for enlighten- 
ment on the notion of 'religious studies' (Vol. XII: 334) will find the cross-reference 
'Study of Religion, article on Religious Studies as an Academic Discipline' (Vol. 
XIV) — an entry that consists of essays by Seymour Cain ('History of Study'), Eric 
J. Sharpe ('Methodological Issues'), and Thomas Benson ('Religious Studies as an 
Academic Discipline'), the last of which purports to trace 'the development of reli- 
gious studies as part of the liberal arts curriculum of secular and sectarian institutions 
of higher learning during the latter half of the twentieth century' (64). According 
to Benson, religious studies is a scholarly or academic undertaking aimed at 'fostering 
critical understanding of religious traditions and values' (89) as opposed to a reli- 
gious exercise designed to nurture faith. It is therefore a new enterprise, distinct from 
an earlier style of 'faith-based' study of religion in the university that is usually referred 
to as 'theology.' 

Harold Remus, in the Encyclopedia of the American Religious Experience (1988, Vol. 
Ill), claims that the development of new academic disciplines, such as sociology, 
anthropology, and psychology, applied to the study of religion at the end of the nine- 
teenth century, 'led eventually to the development of an academic field designated 
religion or religious studies that was dedicated in principle to the academic study of 
religion . . .' (1658). There is a clear line of demarcation, he insists, between this 
new discipline and its forerunner (the religiously committed study of religion). 
Religious studies, he warns, must not be confused with religious education which, 
like theology, is confessional in nature. 'Religious studies,' he writes, 'does not seek 
to inculcate religious doctrines or specific religious values, to strengthen or win 

100 Key approaches to the study of religions 

commitment to a religious tradition or institution, or to provide instruction prepara- 
tory to professional training for the ministry or rabbinate' (1653). For Remus, 
therefore, religious studies cannot involve instruction in religion but can nevertheless 
teach about religion (1657). 

Alan Olson presents a similar picture of 'religious studies' in the Encyclopedia of 
Religious Education (1990a), insisting that such studies are 'to be distinguished from the- 
ological studies programs at the some two hundred and fifty seminaries and divinity 
schools in the United States and Canada' (549). For more than a century, he claims, 
religious studies has been trying to differentiate itself from religious and theological 
enterprises as a study that excludes personal belief. In his view, 'religious studies is meant 
to identify an objective, scientific, non-biased study of religion as distinct from 'theo- 
logical' and/or 'confessional' study for the purpose of increasing the faith, understand- 
ing, and institutional commitment of individual degree candidates in a particular 
religion' (549—50). Thus, according to Olson, whereas the academic study of religion 
in the US had been primarily in the care of religiously founded institutions until well 
into the twentieth century — and, therefore, had been essentially religious in character 
- by the 1950s it became more scientific and 'emerged as an important interdisciplinary, 
polymethodological, and cross-cultural area of academic inquiry' (551). 

The entry by Ninian Smart on 'Religious Studies in Higher Education' in John 
Hinnells' The New Penguin Dictionary of Religions (1997) echoes Olson's description. 
After acknowledging the existence of long-standing traditional approaches to the 
study of religion in institutions of higher learning, Smart maintains that 'Religious 
Studies as a new multidisciplinary subject incorporating history of religions, cross- 
cultural topics, social-scientific approaches and ethical and philosophical reflections 
. . . came to prominence chiefly in the 1960s and early 1970s' (420). The signifi- 
cance of the new 'discipline,' it is suggested, is that the academic study of religions 
in the modern university made possible a variety of scholarly approaches different 
from those sanctioned up to then by the traditional theological framework. Smart 
argues that this shift of approach clearly broadened the scope of studies in religion. 

Despite the advent of a new and clearly defined scholarly approach to religious 
studies, that new study does not consistently reflect the neutral status of an objec- 
tive science. Benson points to this, for example, arguing that even though admitting 
religious studies results from secularizing forces in society, what lies behind the emer- 
gence of this new field is not primarily a scientific impulse. Religious studies programs, 
he notes, have usually been created in response to student and community interests, 
so that, even though such studies of religion are not as overtly religious as they once 
were, they are nevertheless concerned with more than scientific knowledge, for they 
are often touted as an important element in the 'liberal education' dedicated to the 
cultivation of the self. As he puts it, religious studies is 'generally influenced by 
pluralistic assumptions and [has] tended toward global perspectives on the nature and 
history of religion' (1986: 89). As a consequence, religious studies, even while 
bringing a broader curriculum to the religion department and considerably under- 
mining the traditional seminary model, has unfortunately held the door open to 'a 
crazy quilt of courses encompassing many disciplines, eras, regions, languages, and 
methods of inquiry' (91) - including traditional seminary- type offerings of Christian 
history, theology, biblical studies, religious ethics, religious thought, and religious 
education. The survival of religious studies in the US, he suggests, is therefore tied 

Religious studies I 01 

not to the social sciences but rather to the fate of the humanities which are, like 
theology in the past, directed not only toward providing knowledge about the human 
estate, but to the formation of the character of students. Recognizing this, Benson 
points to the vestigial religious overtones to 'religious studies' in the university 
context, noting that in the publicly funded university, the study of religion occa- 
sionally raises apprehension 'concerning church— state relations and the constitutional 
status of state-funded religious studies' (89). Objections to such studies in the public 
university context, he suggests, have eased in the light of court decisions that have 
distinguished teaching about religion (even with the overtones described) from reli- 
gious indoctrination, implying that only self-ascribed sectarian religious education 
need be excluded from the field. In Benson's estimation, therefore, religious studies 
seems to connote a broadly liberal religious education directed toward the formation 
of character and the betterment of society rather than scientific study aimed at know- 
ledge and explanation of religious phenomena. He admits that in the 1960s there 
was deep interest in gaining disciplinary status for religious studies, but not on the 
grounds of its being a science. Rather, such status was sought on the basis of schol- 
arly interest in a common subject matter: 'the nature and diverse manifestations of 
religious experience' (91). But this, he declares, is not sufficient to warrant its recog- 
nition as a discipline, because it clearly does not have a method peculiar to itself. 
'Religious studies are, perhaps, best understood,' he therefore concludes, 'as a 
community of disciplines gathered around the complex phenomenon of religious 
belief and practice' (92). 

Although Remus argued for a line of demarcation between instruction in religion 
and teaching about religion, he also noted that such teaching about religion is of 
particular importance to liberal education (1988: 1658). And in so doing, he seems 
to suggest that religious studies is more than merely a scientific undertaking, despite 
his insistence that it is not the task of liberal education to make the university a 
religious place (1658). He claims, for example, that it is not only the emergence of 
the social sciences that provided an impetus to the development of this new field, 
but that a 'decline in institutional religions has also been a factor in enrolment in 
religious studies courses . . .' (1658), suggesting thereby that the new enterprise has 
become in some sense a surrogate religion. Courses available in the new departments, 
that is, provide students with 'opportunities to pursue some of the basic human issues 
— such as freedom, justice, love, evil, death - that universities were often bypassing 
in favor of technical and analytical study' (1659). Thus, although not intending to 
indoctrinate, the new religious studies department nevertheless constitutes an element 
in the student's search for meaning in life; it is not simply concerned with obtaining 
empirical and theoretical knowledge about religion. 

Olson's demarcation of religious studies from a religio-theological study of religion 
is at least as ambiguous. For Olson, however, the reasons no such clear demarcation 
is possible are connected to the nature of science rather than to the nature of either 
religion or religious studies. A proper understanding of 'science,' Olson insists, will be 
seen to exclude all possibility of providing a fully naturalistic explanation for religion. 
'Religious studies,' he writes, 'has greatly contributed to the growing awareness that 
true science does not have to do with the development of a monolithic discipline, but 
with the collective efforts of a community of scholars illuminating one or more facets 
of the truth' (1990a: 551, emphasis added). In an article on the university in the same 

102 Key approaches to the study of religions 

encyclopedia (1990b), Olson's notion of religious studies is further clarified in his claim 
that the discipline is an important element in the humanities because it provides sus- 
tained attention to religious values, making knowledge alone an insufficient goal of 
the enterprise. Consequently for Olson — although he does not spell it out in great 
detail — a scientific study of religion that seeks to study religion wholly objectively is 
little more than an ideology of secular humanism. 

The essay by Smart in Hinnells' The New Penguin Dictionary of Religions also 
acknowledges that the so-called new religious studies is not altogether new; in fact, 
it offers programs that often parallel those offered in divinity schools and depart- 
ments of theology. It is acknowledged, moreover, that, at least in part, religious 
studies is fuelled by 'a growth in questing and questioning' rather than by the ideal 
of obtaining objective knowledge about religion (1995: 420-1). Thus, even though 
involving the sciences in the study of religion, the new religious studies is not unam- 
biguously scientific in intent or in practice. Not only is it determined by a religious 
or theological agenda, it is also shaped, Smart argues, by other ideological agendas. 
Since its emergence in the 1960s it has been profoundly affected by newer, non- 
objectivist approaches to the understanding of human phenomena such as feminism 
and postmodernist theorizing (421). Smart then concludes by pointing out how 
important religious studies is to the humanities — and by implication — to the humanist 
(and 'liberal education') agenda: 'Religious Studies is in one sense a branch of social 
science but has also begun to play a vital role in the humanities, both because of 
its cross-cultural commitments and because of its serious consideration of diversity 
of human world- views' (421). 

In light of this analysis of the encyclopedists' efforts to provide an account of 'reli- 
gious studies' — of the academic study of religion in the university context — scholars 
will have to acknowledge, as does Adrian Cunningham (1990), that 'perhaps "reli- 
gious" [in the phrase "religious studies"] may still carry hints of its earlier usage to 
describe adherents, and of the ambiguities of "religious education" . . .' (30). Michael 
Pye (1991) makes the same point more forcefully, arguing that 'the adjective "reli- 
gious" can easily suggest, and sometimes may be intended to suggest, that these 
"studies" are supposed to be religious in orientation and not simply studies of religion 
. . .' (41). The term is often used, he maintains, to designate those subjects 
and activities which in the past have constituted theological enterprises, and must 
therefore be taken for 'camouflage for theology' (42). 

The lack of clarity and precision in the encyclopedia definitions of 'religious studies' 
is not surprising for it reflects current practices in the discipline as it is observed in 
college and university departments. The character of that study is thoroughly analyzed 
in the ambitious state-of-the-art reviews of religious studies in Canadian universities 
directed by Harold Coward. Six volumes of the study have appeared between 1983 
and 2001, covering the provinces of Alberta (Neufeldt 1983), Quebec (Rousseau 
and Despland 1988), Ontario (Remus et al. 1992), Manitoba and Saskatchewan 
(Badertscher et al. 1993), and British Columbia (Fraser 1995); and New Brunswick, 
Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland (Bowlby 2001). 

Although entitled 'The Study of Religion in Canada/Sciences Religieuses au Canada,' 
the projected study is described in the editor's introduction to each volume as 'A 
State-of-the-Art Review of religious studies in Canada' (emphasis added), which seems 
to identify 'religious studies' in university departments very broadly with any and 

Religious studies I 03 

every type of study of religion carried on in institutions of higher learning. The ambi- 
guity of the project description, in fact, provides Brian Fraser all the encouragement 
needed for dealing not only with the academic study of religion in the university 
setting but also with the religious and theological study of religion in other institu- 
tions in the province — including seminaries. Indeed, Fraser entitles his state-of-the-art 
review not 'Religious Studies in British Columbia' but The Study of Religion in British 
Columbia (1995), and makes it very clear early on in the volume that he believes 
the ambiguity of the project title leaves room for argument to the effect that the 
kinds of study carried on in these very different institutions are not only comple- 
mentary but in some fundamental sense the same. 'In the other volumes in the 
Canadian Corporation for the Study of Religion (CCSR) series on the study of reli- 
gion in Canada,' he writes, 'the focus has been on religious studies in the secular 
university, with minimal attention being paid to various approaches of theological 
studies' (viii). As there is only one department of religious studies in universities in 
British Columbia (UBC), and because Fraser works, as he puts it, from a 'vocational 
base in theological studies,' he chose 'to focus on the broader subject indicated by 
the original designation of the series as a whole, i.e., the study of religion' (viii-ix). 
A comprehensive review of the state-of-the-art in that province, he insists therefore, 
'requires that appropriate attention be paid to both religious studies and theological 
studies' (ix). This, in his view, moreover, is not mandated simply by the fact that 
two radically different kinds of study of religion exist in institutions of higher educa- 
tion. It exists also because they have complementary interests, so that a proper study 
of 'religious studies' requires that this fact be recognized. According to Fraser, for 
example, both types of study of religion exact an element of commitment aside from 
that found in religious institutions; for while religious institutions of higher learning 
are committed to enhancing 'participation in and contribution to religious traditions 
and communities that govern the institutions in which the study takes place' (viii), 
the so-called neutral and non-advocative study of religion in the university is also 
directed toward results 'that intend to elucidate the questions of human existence 
that religions have always tried to confront' (viii). Religious studies, therefore, even 
though having 'nothing whatsoever to do with the professional training of ministers' 
(20), seems to be a kind of non-sectarian civil religion or general theology fit for 'a 
public and pluralistic institution' (viii) because it engages fundamental questions of 
meaning in human existence. His views in this regard are clearly exhibited in his 
praise for the work of the Centre for Studies in Religion and Society at the University 
of Victoria, which, he claims, emerged in part as 'the result of the need for an 
expanded view of studies in religion' (109) wherein the 'interdisciplinary nature of 
its commitment brings together the various voices of the scholarly worlds, while 
not ignoring the community at large, [to address] major challenges of global concern 
. . .' (109). And it is in light of this kind of project that Fraser expresses the hope 
for an integration of the various approaches 'to the study of religion and the reli- 
gions themselves!,] and for the development of a [university-based] doctoral program 
in religious/ theological studies' (109, emphasis added). 

Had Fraser consulted the first volume in this series, he would not have needed to 
provide justificatory argument for his study of religious and theological programs of 
study in British Columbia's religious institutions. For in Ronald W. Neufeldt's (1983) 
account of 'religious studies' in Alberta he acknowledges that some scholars 'expressed 

104 Key approaches to the study of religions 

some opposition to the inclusion of theological colleges and bible colleges and insti- 
tutions' (xi) but nevertheless in his study proceeded to support such an expanded 
notion of the field — as has every subsequent study. Neufeldt's justification for pro- 
ceeding in this fashion is both practical and theoretical, and it is particularly sympto- 
matic of the confusion that plagues the notion of religious studies as a new kind of 
academic undertaking. Among the practical reasons for including religious institutions 
in his account of religious studies in Alberta, Neufeldt cites the fact that 'particu- 
lar courses in theological colleges are recognized by universities either as religious 
studies courses or as arts options' (xi), pointing to the practice that 'students from Bible 
colleges are sometimes given block credit for courses taken in a Bible college, or are 
exempted from taking introductory courses in religious studies in the universities' (xi). 
Although such practices suggest a profound confusion of the natures of the new study 
of religion on the one hand and theological studies on the other, Neufeldt supports 
the practice on theoretical grounds, none of which is persuasive. He insists, for exam- 
ple, that 'the confessional stance of a particular institution should not automatically 
be taken to mean that the programs and research in such institutions have no aca- 
demic integrity at all,' as if that fact provides grounds for the integration of the two 
approaches to the study of religion in the university context. He suggests that the 
courses in the theological schools for which transfer credit is given, are all at the 
descriptive level and therefore not likely to differ greatly from the descriptive courses 
provided in university departments. Should this prove otherwise, however, Neufeldt 
is ready with further methodological argument. 'In effect,' he writes, 'the argument 
made here is for a humanities model for religious studies rather than [for] a model in 
which the predominant note is critical analysis and theory' (xii). And such a model, 
he claims (on the authority of Ninian Smart's analysis of religious studies in his The 
Science of Religion and the Sociology of Knowledge (1973)), shows religious studies to be 
open to aims beyond those of science; beyond merely seeking a theoretical account of 
religion. Neufeldt acknowledges that religious studies in Alberta is dominated by 'tex- 
tual and theological/philosophical studies' (76), and while believing this needs cor- 
rection through co-operation with cognate disciplines, nevertheless insists that the 
effort 'to hire scholars who are trained in other approaches to the study of religion' 
must not eclipse those trained in the theological traditions (77). For Neufeldt, 
evidently, religious studies is not clearly distinguishable from a study of religion that 
is itself a non-sectarian religious undertaking. 

Les Sciences Religieuses au Quebec depuis 1972 (1988), by Louis Rousseau and Michel 
Despland, traces the declining influence of the Roman Catholic Church on religious 
studies since 1960, but they point out that a claim to neutrality for religious studies 
cannot be made. Although they argue that the major societies and associations related 
to the field of religious studies show a marked move toward 'pluridisciplinarity,' they 
nevertheless maintain that theology and Christian studies still dominate departmental 
programs and scholarly research interests. Indeed, they argue that the situation in 
Quebec institutions is still extremely unfavourable to freedom of teaching and 
research, disrupting the claim that religious studies programs in the secular univer- 
sities have eliminated theological approaches to the subject. According to Rousseau 
and Despland, therefore, the field of religious studies in Quebec integrates the 
approaches associated with theology and the sciences of religion; thus there is no 
indication of a decisive move from theology to the social scientific study of religion. 

Religious studies I 05 

The Ontario volume (1992) by Harold Remus, William James, and Daniel Fraikin 
also fails to provide a clear analysis of the theology/religious studies problem. The 
authors, drawing on Charles Anderson's study in the early 1970s, suggest that univer- 
sities drew a clear distinction between religious and secular study (58); but they erred 
in extending their history of the field to programs operating in Bible colleges, which, 
by definition, take a faith-based, rather than scientific approach to their curriculum 
and therefore were presenting not religious studies as much as theology. They reason, 
in part, that contemporary theology is discontinuous from its 'traditional' predecessor, 
therefore l mak[ing] it possible for Ontario religious studies departments to offer such 
courses today' (33). That claim, however, is predicated on the assumption that reli- 
gious studies is not reducible simply to the scientific study of religion. Consequently 
the authors maintain that students of religion must get on with the study of religion 
and stop the 'by now, sterile wrangling over the "theology-and-religious studies'" 
issue (33). Religion, they note, 'is studied in a number of academic fields other than 
theology and in ways that are helpful to religious studies scholars . . . [and that that] 
too, is "the state-of-the-art," in religious studies in general and in Ontario religious 
studies in particular' (34). Religious studies as a new hybrid discipline, it appears 
therefore, is also appropriately carried on in the context of the modern university. 

The response of one theological reviewer of the Ontario study is particularly percep- 
tive with respect to this religiously significant understanding of religious studies. 
Jean-Marc Laporte expresses gratitude for the authors' understanding of religious 
studies because it sees religious studies and theology as allies engaging 'the world and 
its problems' (1993: 249). The essential task of each, is identical - but that is largely 
because the fundamental task of religious studies has been assimilated to that of 
theology. This is lauded by Laporte, who writes: 'While the authors prize the academic 
objectivity of religious studies, they are far from advocating bloodless sterility. 
Professors of religious studies ought to respond to existential concerns and be free to 
disclose their own personal convictions in appropriate, non-proselytizing ways' (249). 
And this is not surprising for, as Laporte points out, the authors claim both that 'the 
matrix out of which religious studies emerged as a distinct reality is a theological 
one' and that 'the pioneers of this discipline in Ontario universities by and large did 
not make a clean break from their origins' (249). 

The story of the rise of religious studies departments in the universities of Manitoba 
and Saskatchewan (Badertscher et al. 1993) reveals the same picture of religious orig- 
ination and influence on the academic study of religion found in the other 
state-of-the-art studies, with the exception of the department at the University of 
Regina in Saskatchewan. As in Manitoba, claims Roland Miller, 'university educa- 
tion . . . grew out of a close association with an original perspective that viewed arts 
and theology as colleagues in the educational enterprise' (101). Theology conse- 
quently dominated the notion of religious studies, but only at the University of 
Saskatchewan (Saskatoon). The development of the department at the University 
of Regina, at first simply an extension of the department at the University of 
Saskatchewan, was radically different, even though it found itself involved with 
legally and financially autonomous, but academically integrated (federated), religious 
colleges. Nevertheless, its programs, Miller argues, 'grew out of a genuine recogni- 
tion of the importance of the subject material and out of concern for a secular 
approach to its academic study' (83). The University of Regina, he continues, 'was 

106 Key approaches to the study of religions 

interested in pursuing the direction that might be summed up by the phrase "science 
of religion," although those words do not appear in any of the materials' (83). 

In Religious Studies in Atlantic Canada Paul W. R. Bowlby works with a definition 
of the field that excludes schools preparing people for professional work in religious 
institutions but includes religious colleges and universities that have accepted public 
funding and have to some degree, therefore, been secularized. Nevertheless, he is 
well aware that most of the departments of religion included in his study have evolved 
from departments of theology and that they have followed a conventional pattern 
of curriculum development, with particular emphasis on biblical and Christian studies. 
He maintains that these institutional structures have seen significant development 
(such as the introduction of comparative, social-scientific, and gender-critical 
approaches to the study of religion) yet also admits that the influence of Christianity 
on the field in this region of the country has hindered the advancement of 'religious 
studies' as a scientific discipline. 

In all of the programs described in the Canadian studies, only that of the University 
of Regina is (in theory at least) purely cognitive in orientation. And its view about 
the nature of the discipline clearly places it in a minority. There were some early 
indications that religious studies would be identified primarily with a non-religious, 
scientific approach to understanding religion (Anderson 1972), but, as the state-of- 
the-art studies make clear, such views did not have a significant impact on the 
development of the field in Canada. Charles Davis's essay on 'The Reconvergence 
of Theology and Religious Studies' (1974—5) better captures the aims and desires of 
those involved in Canadian university departments of religion, as is clearly evident 
in the majority of the contributions to the more recent volume of essays, Religious 
Studies: Issues, Prospects and Proposals (1991), edited by Klaus Klostermaier and Larry 
Hurtado. While recognizing something new in contemporary religious studies, the 
editors nevertheless pointedly invited participants to the conference 'to consider the 
study of religion at public universities as a continuation of the intellectual examination 
of religion which goes back over the ages' (ix, emphasis added). This is also clearly 
evident in the character of the research activities of the majority of those who 
contribute to the Canadian journal Studies in Religion/ Sciences Religieuses, whose pages 
are for the most part filled with religious and theological research rather than with 
scientific studies of religion (Riley 1984). 

Although there are no other state-of-the-art reviews of the field of religious studies 
as extensive as that undertaken by the Canadians, the festschrift for Geoffrey 
Parrinder, edited by Ursula King and entitled Turning Points in Religious Studies (1990), 
provides a comparable one-volume review of the emergence, development, and 
current state of religious studies in the UK. This volume is of particular interest 
because it unequivocally presents itself as providing an account of religious studies 
as a new discipline, clearly distinguishable from the theological approaches to the 
study of religion that had until recently characterized university scholarship. As the 
fly-leaf notice about the volume puts it: 'Religious Studies was first introduced as a 
new discipline in various universities and colleges around the world in the 1960s. This 
discipline brought about a reorientation of the study of religion, created new perspec- 
tives, and influenced all sectors of education' (emphasis added). The clarity of this 
brief statement about a new discipline that has re-orientated scholarship in religion, 
however, is quickly effaced by the editor's general introduction to the essays intended 

Religious studies 107 

to document both the emergence of the new discipline and the major turning points 
in its evolution. For King speaks here not of a discipline, but rather of a field of study 
which 'found wider recognition from the 1960s and 1970s onwards when the term 
"Religious Studies" came first into general use' (15). But as a field, religious studies 
cannot be characterized methodologically, for fields of study involve a multiplicity 
of disciplinary approaches to a particular subject matter of interest. Her introduction 
to the essays on the institutional growth of religious studies in the universities of 
England, Scotland, and Wales, moreover, compromises the claim that the so-called 
new discipline brought about a re-orientation of the study of religion already in exist- 
ence prior to the 1960s. These essays, she writes, 'show how much the course of 
Religious Studies and the history of its programmes have been intertwined with and 
often curtailed by earlier institutional developments in the study of theology, so that 
it has often been difficult to maintain the distinctiveness of Religious Studies' (16). 
Having acknowledged this, King then goes on to claim that religious studies cannot 
really 'be fully understood without looking at the closely associated developments in 
religious education and practical issues in interfaith dialogue . . .' (16), suggesting 
that religious studies is — and ought to be — more than an academic (scientific) disci- 
pline. Thus she includes in the volume not only essays on the development of the 
'new discipline' but also on the role of religious studies in relation to developments 
in religious education, interreligious dialogue and philosophy of religion. For King, 
these 'concerns' characterize distinct approaches to the subject matter of religious 
studies and are therefore some of the disciplines that characterize the field as multi- 
disciplinary; but all of them clearly reflect the traditional religious and theological 
concerns of the scholarly study of religion which 'Religious Studies' ought to have 
superseded. As Robert Jackson points out in his essay on 'Religious Studies and 
Developments in Religious Education' (1990), for example, religious education 
embodies not only a cognitive or scientific concern about religion, but also sees reli- 
gion itself as a form of knowledge and a distinct realm of experience (107); and 
religious education, therefore, as directed to awakening 'a unique spiritual dimension 
of experience' in children (110). The raison d'etre of religious education, therefore, 
is not only cognitive but formative; aimed at helping children exercise their spiri- 
tual curiosity, and encouraging 'in them an imaginative openness to the infinite 
possibilities of life' (110). W. Owen Cole's discussion of 'The New Educational 
Reform Act and Worship in County Schools of England and Wales' (1990) simi- 
larly confirms the judgement that religious education is concerned not only with 
gaining knowledge about religion but also with nurturing religious growth and devel- 
opment. As Cole puts it: 'Some kind of collective gathering is considered desirable 
by most teachers for a number of purposes including the collective exploration of and 
reflection upon values and beliefs . . .' (129—30, emphasis added). The fact that phil- 
osophy holds the same kind of religious and theological import as one of the 
disciplines that make up the multidisciplinary enterprise of religious studies is clearly 
evident in Keith Ward's 'The Study of Truth and Dialogue in Religion' (1990). For 
Ward, philosophy's value to religious studies is to be found in its concerns with 
meaning and truth: 

Religious Studies is good for philosophy, since it keeps alive the questions of 
ultimate meaning and value which are its lifeblood. Philosophy is good for 

108 Key approaches to the study of religions 

Religious Studies, since it keeps alive the questions of truth and justification 
which preserve religion from complacent dogmatism. The discipline of Religious 
Studies now offers to philosophers a much wider and more informed basis for 
the investigation of meaning and truth in religion; and the most fruitful results 
are to be expected from the increasingly inter-disciplinary approach which is 
being adopted in British universities. 


Interestingly (if not ironically), only Marcus Braybrooke - Chairman of the inter- 
faith movement 'World Congress of Faiths' — appears to assume that religious studies 
is a genuinely new approach to the study of religion. Braybrooke writes: 'The under- 
lying hope of the interfaith movement, although not of the academic study of religions, 
is that in some way religions are complementary or convergent' (1990: 138, emphasis 
added). He nevertheless seems to believe that a positive complementarity exists 
between religious studies and interfaith development. And Eleanor Nesbitt's article 
on Sikhism (1990) presents a similar proposal for encouraging a positive relationship 
between the modern student of religion and the religious devotee. 

The descriptions of the emergence of religious studies in the universities in England 
(Adrian Cunningham), Scotland (Andrew F. Walls), and Wales (Cyril Williams), it 
must be noted, claim (or suggest) that it achieved status in the university as an 
autonomous discipline by virtue of its differentiation from religion and theology. Their 
claims, however, seem to be undermined by the editor of the volume in which they 
appear, for they are found in the context of numerous other contributions of the kind 
just described, as well as an essay by Ninian Smart — 'Concluding Reflections on 
Religious Studies in Global Perspective' (1990) - that argue a contrary case. It is true 
that neither Smart nor the other essayists argue specifically against undertaking sci- 
entific analyses of religion and religions. Smart does argue, however, against what he 
calls a scientifically purist stance in religious studies. As with the other essayists, Smart 
insists that religious studies can only properly be understood as a polymethodic and 
multidisciplinary enterprise which embraces 'as much as possible of the scholarship of 
all sorts going on in the world . . . [w]hether it is neutral and objective or religiously 
committed' (305, 300). As a non-purist study, religious studies, he claims, will triumph 
because it can 'be a force for permitting deeper conversations between religions, with- 
out reverting into a simple exchange of pieties' (305). In this light, it is ironic that 
Cunningham should remark, as I have already noted, that even though the designa- 
tion 'religious studies' for the study of religion carried on in university departments has 
an honourable history, 'perhaps "religious" may still carry hints of its earlier usage to 
describe adherents, and of ambiguities of "religious education," and it would be better 
for the university area to be simply called "religion"' (30). 

Given Ninian Smart's widespread influence on the development of university 
studies of religion over the formative period under review here, not only in the UK 
but also in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the US, it may be 
helpful to elaborate more fully his views on the nature and structure of 'religious 
studies.' In 'Some Thoughts on the Science of Religion' (1996), Smart clearly differ- 
entiates between the scientific study of religion and religious studies, with the former 
being associated with a multiplicity of disciplines, including history, comparative reli- 
gions, and other social scientific approaches to the study of religious phenomena 

Religious studies 109 

(16). It is possible, Smart admits, to take 'religious studies' to be fully described as 
the scientific study of religion, but he thinks such an understanding falls short of the 
view of that enterprise held by the majority of those engaged in it. Thus he argues 
for a broader view of 'religious studies' that will include not only scientific studies 
but also 'reflective studies' (19). By 'reflective studies' Smart means the examination 
of philosophical questions about the meaning and value of religion, in the same sense 
presented by Keith Ward (1990). Smart admits that such a reflective religious studies 
involves itself in 'presentational concerns,' by which he means engagement with the 
questions of truth and meaning, yet he denies that this amounts to merging religious 
studies with theology (19). This on two grounds: first, that which he calls 'extended 
pluralistic theologizing' is clearly distinguishable from traditional theology; and 
second, that 'certain reductionistic views of science are themselves ideological posi- 
tions that are not clearly distinguishable from traditional theology' (20). He argues, 
therefore, that talk of the science of religion as the core of religious studies is wholly 
reasonable, but only if it remains non-reductionist. As such, the science of religion 
would then allow for critical reflection on the meaning, truth, and value of religion 
insofar as it is not simply identified with traditional theology, which, he claims, 'is 
tainted by arrogance, colonialism and a usual lack of pluralism' (19). As he puts it, 
'[i]f Religious Studies is to take on board reflective studies, and with that get involved 
with any presentational concerns with theology or ideology, it is only with Extended 
Pluralistic Theologizing . . . that it should blend' (19). For him, therefore, '[t]o be 
genuinely scientific and objective we need to be able to steer a middle channel 
between the Scylla of secret theology and the Charybdis of reductionism' (20), which 
requires a blend of non-reductionistic scientific studies of religion with reflective, 
extended theology. Both traditional theology and scientific purism are excluded. 

In his contribution to Jon R. Stone's The Craft of Religious Studies (1998), Smart 
reiterates his concern about 'scientific purism,' even though he acknowledges that 
what is called modern religious studies arose only after the 1960s with the merger 
of the history of religions with the social sciences (18). The new discipline, he insists, 
must be both speculative and philosophically reflective, although he warns against 
its being used as mere 'clothing for a religious worldview' (24). It is little wonder, 
therefore, that Smart characterizes religious studies here as a quest (ix). But neither 
should it come as a surprise, therefore, that many in the academic world, as Smart 
himself puts it, have categorized religious studies 'as some form of tertiary Sunday 
School, . . . [and so] resist and despise it' (24). There is sufficient confusion about 
the notion of 'religious studies,' he judiciously notes, that 'the outside world in acad- 
emia may be forgiven for misunderstanding what the field of Religious Studies is all 
about . . .' (24). But it does not appear to me that his own characterizations of the 
field have helped dispel the confusion; indeed, his own work seems to contribute to 
a view of religious studies as a religious exercise. 

That this kind of confusion about the nature of religious studies exists in the 
American context is clearly acknowledged in the report of the Committee on 'Defining 
Scholarly Work' of the American Academy of Religion (AAR). In a report entitled 
'Religious Studies and the Redefining Scholarship Project,' the committee notes: 

Religious Studies, however defined or wherever located, remains suspect in the eyes 
of many within the rest of the academy and continually finds itself marginalized or 

I 10 Key approaches to the study of religions 

otherwise obscured due to the fact and/or perception of blurred boundaries between 
studying religion and being religious, or between education about and education in 

(Myscofski and Pilgrim et al. 1993: 7) 

The suspicion in which religious studies is held in the US academic context, there- 
fore, is due primarily to the confusion of what is proposed as an academic (and 
therefore scientific) enterprise with a religious or theological undertaking. As in 
Canada and the UK, scholars in the US claim that a significant transformation in 
the nature of the study of religion in the university context occurred after the Second 
World War. In God's People in the Ivory Tower: Religion in the Early American University 
(1991), Robert S. Shepard claims that the study of religion in US colleges and univer- 
sities briefly flirted with the idea of creating a science of religion but remained 
essentially a kind of 'Christian Religionswissenschaff that was essentially moralistic 
and apologetic in intent and practice. As such it was unable 

to separate [itself] from the theological and professional concerns of the nascent 
university, particularly the rising seminary within the university. A theological 
agenda accompanied the entrance of comparative religion in American higher 
education despite the arguments, some rhetorical and some sincere, that the new 
discipline was objective, scientific, and appropriate as a liberal arts subject. 


Nevertheless, claims Shepard, the academic study of religion in US colleges and 
universities experienced a renaissance after the Second World War and within a very 
short period of time gained disciplinary status within the academic context. D. G. 
Hart (1992) comes to a similar conclusion in his analysis of the field of religious 
studies. While not unaware of the fact that the rapid growth of the field was stim- 
ulated by the cultural crisis generated by the Second World War, and that such 
studies were aimed at ensuring college and university students received an education 
that included 'values-training' and moral formation (209), he nonetheless insists that 
the development of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) transformed the field 
into a scientific discipline. These changes, he insists, constitute a watershed in the 
history of the study of religion in the US, because they involved the substitution of 
scientific explanations of religious phenomena for the earlier quest for religious, theo- 
logical, and humanistic accounts of religion. 'The new methods of studying religion 
advocated by the AAR,' he writes, 'signalled the demise of [the] Protestant domi- 
nance [of the field] as professors of religion became increasingly uncomfortable with 
their religious identification ... By striving to make their discipline more scientific, 
religion scholars not only embraced the ideals of the academy but also freed them- 
selves from the Protestant establishment' (198). (Hart recapitulates the argument in 
his more recent book, The University Gets Religion: Religious Studies in American Higher 
Education (2000).) 

Were this picture true, scholars would be hard-pressed to explain why the so-called 
new discipline is still held in suspicion by the rest of the academic and scientific 
community. What does account for the suspicion, however, is the fact that the notion 
of religious studies is not in fact carried out within a naturalistic and scientific frame- 

Religious studies I I I 

work, but more nearly resembles the academic field as it first emerged in the US - 
namely, as an inchoate enterprise not easily distinguishable from theology and char- 
acterized primarily by apologetic and moral concerns. This is clearly evident in the 
review of the field produced for the AAR by Ray Hart, entitled 'Religious and 
Theological Studies in American Higher Education' (1991), even though he admits 
that the term 'religious studies' is now generally used to refer to 'the scholarly, neutral 
and non-advocative study of multiple religious traditions' (716). Hart notes that many 
in the AAR are extremely uncomfortable with 'the nomenclature that discriminates 
"religious" from "theological studies'" (716), and points out that the members of the 
Academy are divided between the terms 'study of religion' (gaining knowledge about 
religion) and 'practice of religion' (understanding the truth of religion) (734, 778); 
he then claims, however, that by far the majority of the members favor a style of 
scholarship that combines the two activities, or one that at the very least eschews 
a clear demarcation between them. Joseph Kitagawa's essays, 'The History of Religions 
in America' (1959) and 'Humanistic and Theological History of Religion with Special 
Reference to the North American Scene' (1983), strengthen Hart's contention 
considerably. In the first essay, he maintains that the religious liberalism of the 
World's Parliament of Religions served as the fundamental impetus for the estab- 
lishment of the study of comparative religions — which later became religious studies 
— in American universities, even though he acknowledges that the participants at 
the Parliament meeting in 1893 for the most part gathered together representatives 
of the world's faiths rather than scholars of religion. In drawing attention to this, 
Kitagawa underlines the fact that the academic study of religion in the US has more 
than one dimension; it has involved historical and social scientific analysis, but it 
has also moved beyond what such analyses can provide. Consequently he distin- 
guishes the 'History of Religions' (as a scientific enterprise) from the 'theological 
History of Religions' - but with the implication that neither can do without the 
other. And he insists that the Religionswissenschaft later destined to become 'religious 
studies' is not simply scientific but rather 'religio-scientific,' being obliged to 'view 
that data "religio-scientifically" ' (1959: 21). In the second essay, Kitagawa suggests 
that the scientific Enlightenment principles behind the scholarship of the members 
of the International Association for the History of Religions (IAHR) have greatly 
affected the development of the field in the US, and yet - in keeping with his earlier 
analysis of Religionswissenschaft - he refers to the discipline as 'autonomous!,] situ- 
ated between normative studies . . . and descriptive studies' (1983: 559). Unlike other 
social sciences, then, for Kitagawa this discipline does not simply seek descriptions 
or explanations of events and processes; rather, it enquires after the meaning of reli- 
gious data and is therefore a mode of 'research' linking descriptive with normative 
concerns (560). He contrasts this kind of study of religion with the more explicitly 
normative 'theological History of Religions' cited in his earlier essay, but it is clear 
that this 'humanistic History of Religions' also stands in contrast to the purely social- 
scientific study of religion represented by scholars affiliated to the IAHR. As one 
historian of the development of religious studies in the US puts it, despite the claim 
of having become an independent scientific enterprise in addition to the other social 
sciences, it has remained haunted by religious aspirations (Reuben 1996: 142). The 
religious studies of the post-1960s, in particular has always been concerned with more 
than scientific description and explanation of religion. As D. G. Hart echoes (1992: 

I 12 Key approaches to the study of religions 

207-8), post-1960s religious studies in the US is a discipline imbued with spiritual 
value; and the students of religion (as represented by the AAR) draw support from 
the humanities for their enterprise by stressing the spiritual relevance of their studies 
to the natural sciences. 

The confusion that characterizes the post-war notion of 'religious studies' in the 
American context is rather clearly documented in Walter H. Capps's Religious Studies: 
The Making of a Discipline (1995). Although Capps refers to religious studies as an 
intellectual discipline which 'provides training and practice ... in directing and 
conducting inquiry regarding the subject of religion' (xiv), whereby the subject of 
religion can be made intelligible, he also claims that 'religious studies is a relatively 
new subject-field concerning whose intellectual composition there is as yet no 
consensus' (xv). He maintains that this is partly because the principal contributions 
to the field have been made by persons in other disciplines such as history and 
the social sciences, and because 'convictional goals' have affected the processes of 
interpretation applied. He states: 

the primary differentiation within religious studies derives less from the fact that 
historians, sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, philosophers, theologians, 
and others are intensely involved in inquiry, and raise questions from within the 
frame of interests that belong to their respective vantage points, and much more 
from the fact that representations of all these fields and disciplines are interested 
in uncovering certain information about the subject and pursue it via raising 
fundamental questions. 

(xxii, emphasis added) 

Cognitive and scientific inquiry, therefore, is secondary to the fundamental questions 
about meaning and value that provide a coherent framework within which the multi- 
plicity of disciplines making up the field operate. Capps argues that it ought not to 
surprise anyone to see such a religious goal characterize this academic study. For, as 
he notes, not only was the historical and comparative study of religion established 
in the universities in the late nineteenth century and until the Second World War 
undertaken largely by scholars involved both in the study and the practice of reli- 
gion (325), but one can also make a strong case that the subsequent flowering of 
the study of religion in the university context — and especially so in the US - was 
due to its character as a liberal theological undertaking. According to Capps, that 
is, it is largely because of the Tillichian conceptualization of the theological enter- 
prise that students of religion gained 'forceful and clear access to the more inclusive 
cultural worlds, and in ways that could be sanctioned religiously and theologically' 
(290). He rejects the view that the perpetuation of theological reflection in the reli- 
gious studies enterprise undermines its academic or scientific respectability (325). 
Instead, the student of religion must recognize that religious studies, insofar as it is 
merely the sum of the analytical and interpretive achievements of the various 
constituent fields of research, does not do full justice to the subject of religion. 
Furthermore, the polymethodic and multidisciplinary character of the academic study 
of religion today constitutes 'religious studies' only if all these fields are working 
together to show 'that religion has a necessary and proper place within the inven- 
tory of elements of which the scope of knowledge is comprised' (345). 'In sum,' he 

Religious studies I I 3 

concludes broadly, 'religious studies recognizes that religion is not fully translatable 
into religious studies, and this is an analytical and interpretive truth' (347). 

More recent work in America concurs with Capps's conclusion. In his introduc- 
tion to Critical Terms for Religious Studies (1998), Mark C. Taylor claims both that 
prior to the 1960s religious studies was essentially a Christian (Protestant) under- 
taking and that the raison d'etre of the new religious studies since that time is still 
essentially religious but neither particularly Protestant or Christian. At that time, 
'departments and programs in religion tended to be either extensions of the chap- 
lain's office, which was almost always Christian and usually Protestant, or affiliated 
with philosophy departments, which were primarily if not exclusively concerned with 
Western intellectual history;' whereas after the 1960s they are associated not with 
science, but rather with 'the flowering of the 1960s counter culture' (Taylor 1998a: 
11). Although he admits that religious studies has been 'profoundly influenced by 
developments dating back to the Enlightenment' (10), its new incarnation in univer- 
sity departments in the US was predominantly influenced by multicultural sensibilities 
created by the civil rights and anti-war movements of the late 1950s and early 1960s. 
If the 'how' of religious studies has changed because of the increased influence of 
the social sciences in cultural studies during this period, he avers nevertheless that 
this has not altered the essence of the discipline; that is, even if a social scientific 
study of religion has somehow displaced the old theology, it has not displaced the 
fundamental religious concern that has always — and always will — characterize the 
field. Taylor notes elsewhere (1994) that it is precisely for this reason that religious 
studies is an academically suspect discipline in secular colleges and universities (1994: 
950). Yet even though the field of religious studies became captive to other method- 
ologies, he argues, it cannot be reduced to them (951), because the secular approach 
of the sciences absolutize their understanding of religion and are themselves, 
therefore, simply another form of theology. 

For Taylor, there is no appropriate procedure for a comprehensive scientific study 
of religion, and religious studies must therefore be both multidisciplinary and multi- 
cultural. But if he seems to discern the complexity of his stance, he nevertheless 
does not assist the scholarly study under question by his fluid description. 
Postmodernism, he maintains, undermines all possibility of a fundamental method 
or comprehensive explanatory approach to the data of the field. Consequently its 
quarry cannot be cognition; rather it must seek to understand religion by applying 
a multiplicity of notions and concepts that might act as 'enabling constraints' (1998a: 
16) for a discourse of a different kind: 'for exploring the territory of religion' (17) 
by means of a 'dialogue between religious studies and important work going on in 
other areas of the arts, humanities, and social sciences' (18). Such a religious studies, 
he point out, properly transcends scientific reductionism and, like the study of reli- 
gion antedating it, recognizes that '[r]eligion ... is not epiphenomenal but sui generis' 
(6; see also 1999: 4). Stated differently, scientific theory is not not-theological, as 
Taylor might express it, because theory itself is theo-logical and onto-theological in 
character, given that it is a search either for an 'overarching or underlying unity' 
that will coherently frame the data. As he puts it: 

The gaze of the theorist strives to reduce differences to identity and complexity 
to simplicity. When understood in this way, the shift from theology to theory 

I 14 Key approaches to the study of religions 

does not, as so many contemporary theorists think, escape God but exchanges 
overt faith for covert belief in the One in and through which all is understood. 

(1999: 76) 

The new post- 1960s study of religion in the American context on this reading of 
the situation is not new in its fundamental orientation from the traditional study of 
religion in the university. The religious discourse of traditional studies is replaced 
not by scientific discourse but rather by a different form of religious discourse — 
namely, the discourse of 'responsible inquiry' that 'neither demands answers nor 
believes in progress but seeks to keep the future open by a relentless questioning that 
unsettles everything by settling nothing. To settle nothing is to leave nothing unan- 
swered. Forever unanswered' (Taylor 1994: 963). This kind of 'responsible discourse,' 
it is quite apparent, is not primarily concerned with obtaining knowledge about 
religions and religion, but rather with the well-being of the individual. 

That there is no general convergence of opinion about the nature of religious 
studies among students of religion in the Anglo-American university context is clearly 
demonstrated by the analyses of the various Canadian, British, and American views 
presented above. The same can be said about religious studies globally. Although a 
'thick description' of the global situation cannot be given, I will nevertheless attempt 
a brief sketch of similar problems raised in 'religious studies' discussions elsewhere in 
the world. Eric J. Sharpe, for example, notes that although the study of religion in 
Australian universities and colleges was from its inception free from confessional 
attachments, '[that is] not to say . . . that those involved in teaching these various 
programmes were without theological interests' (1986b: 249). He continues: 

On the whole, rather few [Australian students of religion] could be regarded as 
'secular' scholars, and many held a form of dual citizenship, being 'theological' 
and 'scientific' at the same time . . . All in all, the positions occupied by 
Australian scholars in the field by the late 1970s mirrored fairly accurately the 
divisions observable anywhere in the world . . . 


In an essay entitled 'South Africa's Contribution to Religious Studies', Martin 
Prozesky claims that the discipline has made a significant contribution to society 
because of the peculiarity of its being both scientific and 'more than' science. The 
student of religion, he insists, must go beyond merely seeking an explanation of reli- 
gious phenomena to 'a genuinely liberative practice' (Prozesky 1990: 18). According 
to Prozesky, the student of religion is able to do this because religion itself is a 
humanizing force, which, when properly understood, will have a transformative effect 
upon those who study it. 

Another striking example is provided by Michael Pye, in his 'Religious Studies in 
Europe: Structures and Desiderata' (1991), where he points out that the ambiguities 
and confusions that plague the notion of 'religious studies' in the Anglo-American 
context also have their counterpart in Europe. He points out that in Germany, for 
example, 'the term Religionswissenschaft in the singular (science of religion, which for 
Pye is the same as religious studies) is rivalled in some universities by the plural 
Religionswissenschaften (sciences of religion) which tends to mean religious sciences 

Religious studies I I 5 

with a religious motivation, including Catholic and Protestant theology' (41)- The 
evidence, then, regarding the diversity of perceptions, claims, and proposals about 
'religious studies' as an enterprise carried out in the context of the modern univer- 
sity cannot be ignored, and would seem to lead to only one conclusion — that 'religious 
studies,' as Michael Pye has suggested, is 'a flag of convenience' (1994: 52) used by 
scholars, programs, and institutions to 'legitimate' the aims, methods, and procedures 
they adopt in their study of religions. I do not think matters are quite this bleak, 
however, and, in concluding this discussion, I will attempt to set out what general 
agreements might be reached as to the meaning and use of the term 'religious studies' 
by those involved in an academic study of religion in the university. 

The term 'religious studies' it appears from this discussion, is used in two quite dif- 
ferent yet not wholly unconnected ways. In one sense, as the state-of-the-art reviews 
of 'religious studies' in Canada suggest, the term includes whatever study of religion 
and religions is undertaken in any post-secondary institution of education, whether 
religious or secular, and regardless of the methodology adopted. Here the term is often 
taken to be commensurate with 'the academic study of religion' and 'the scholarly 
study of religion,' which notions themselves are often used synonymously. In this case, 
then, as Michael Pye puts it, the notion of religious studies 'covers a multitude of pos- 
sibilities' (1991: 42). The second, more common use of the term, however, is as a des- 
ignation for a particular kind of approach to the study of religion with a particular aim, 
methodology, or style that distinguishes it from the type of study of religion antedat- 
ing it. And when used in this sense, it still refers to the study of religion undertaken 
in the academy, but now designates an enterprise legitimated by the academy - here 
the modern research university — because it measures up to the received criteria of sci- 
entific study in the other university disciplines. Identification of religious studies with 
the academic study of religion in this instance, therefore, does not necessarily apply 
to all post-secondary research carried out under that rubric. 'Religious studies' as an 
academic undertaking, therefore, ought to connote a new kind of enterprise with 
respect to religions and religion, and might well be referred to as a discipline. The reli- 
gious studies literature reviewed here, unfortunately, does not reveal general agree- 
ment among those engaged in the enterprise about the nature, structure, or intent of 
this activity, but neither does it allow inclusion of the multitude of possibilities con- 
tained in 'religious studies' merely as a designation of the institutional location in 
which those engaged in the study of religion are found. 

Moreover, and to recall my initial thematic about the particularities of a disci- 
pline qua discipline, the notion of religious studies is further complicated by the fact 
that the very idea of disciplines in the university is under attack by postmodernist 
thinkers. And, as the foregoing discussion has made quite clear, religious studies is 
understood by many to be an enterprise involving a multiplicity of disciplines and 
is, therefore, polymethodical — and, consequently, without a method peculiar to itself. 
Nevertheless, most of those who have written on 'religious studies' seem agreed upon 
the nature of that study of religion that religious studies either complements or 
displaces: namely, a confessional — and therefore engaged - study of religion (usually 
Christian, and, more specifically, Protestant). There appears to be agreement, then, 
that it is the scientific element of religious studies that constitutes the newness of 
the modern study of religion; but there is still radical disagreement as to whether 
the scientific aspect of religious studies makes the new enterprise wholly discontinuous 

I 16 Key approaches to the study of religions 

with the traditional study of religion, or whether it allows for a degree of comple- 
mentarity. One ought also, perhaps, to acknowledge that 'science' itself, like 
'discipline,' is a seriously contested notion, which subject I might not venture to 
broach, did it not appear in the work of Mark C. Taylor cited above. For it is obvious 
that such a postmodern understanding of science admits a far broader range of intel- 
lectual activities than does modern science. 

As designator of a particular type of study of religion, it appears that 'religious 
studies' is being used to refer to at least four distinct types of intellectual activity in 
college and university departments. Each differentiates itself from the confessional 
study of religion that characterized the university study of religion before the emer- 
gence of the new departments, although not all would deny at least some continuity 
with that earlier religio-theological study. I will provide here a brief characterization 
of each, moving from those that most overtly resemble the confessional approach to 
those that would deny all continuity with it. 

The first of the activities designated 'religious studies' can be described as 'theology 
under new management.' This view is succinctly presented by Schubert M. Ogden, in 
his 'Theology in the University' (1986), in which he argues that theological inquiry 
is of the essence of the study of religion as a humanistic discipline (as distinct from a 
confessional undertaking) (121). If 'by "religious studies,"' he writes, 'is meant a sin- 
gle field-encompassing field of study, constituted by a single question for reflection, rather 
than simply many studies of religion, constituted by the multiple questions of other 
fields of study' (129, emphasis added), then it can only be constituted by focussing on 
'the question as to the meaning and truth of religion as the primary way in which 
human beings make fully explicit the truth about ultimate reality disclosed by their 
spontaneous experience' (129). With the constitutive question of 'religious studies,' 
presented as indistinguishable from that of philosophical theology, Ogden insists that: 

either 'religious studies' designates a proper field of study constituted by the ques- 
tion as to the meaning of and truth of religion, and hence by the philosophical 
theological question as to the meaning and truth of all thinking and speaking 
about God or the ultimate, or else it is simply a loose way of speaking of what 
would be less misleadingly called 'studies of religion,' seeing that they are merely 
the several studies of religion already constituted by the constitutive questions 
of other fields of study such as philosophy, history, and the social sciences. 


Ronald F. Thiemann, in 'The Future of an Illusion: An Inquiry into the Contrast 
Between Theological and Religious Studies' (1990), promotes a similar interpreta- 
tion of the new religious studies, claiming that it, like all theologies — confessional 
theologies included - enquires 'after the dimension of universal human experience' 
(74) and therefore requires reflection on the question of the meaning and truth of 
religion determined to be a fundamental aspect of human existence (79). Similar 
views are expressed in M. Novak's Ascent of the Mountain, Flight of the Dove: An 
Invitation to Religious Studies (1971): 

[R]eligious studies are nothing more than a full articulation, through systematic, 
historical, and comparative reflection, of a person's way of life . . . Religious 

Religious studies I I 7 

studies - then called 'theology' — used to be undertaken mainly in monasteries, 
seminaries, schools of divinity, church colleges . . . Today religious studies are 
pursued at secular universities in connection with programs of humanistic studies, 
with departments of the social sciences (psychology, sociology, anthropology), 
with institutes of African or Asian or Near Eastern studies, and even with inves- 
tigations in the meaning and interpretation of the natural sciences (biology, 
physics, ecology). 


And in Mended Speech: The Crisis of Religious Studies and Theology (1982), P. Joseph 
Cahill provides a long, intricate argument in support of the claim that the human- 
istic study of religion - which he equates with the history of religions - and traditional 
theology are 'two disciplines in a coherent and intelligible field of religious studies' 
(5), a situation that makes possible the understanding of human religious experience 
by focussing attention on the element of belief and commitment central to all reli- 
gions, and is used to justify his claim regarding the unity of the religious 'quest' (146, 
158). '"Religious studies" as theology under new management,' given these accounts 
of it, is only marginally removed from the confessional theological studies it claims 
to replace. It is concerned with 'religious reality,' but deals with it in general philo- 
sophical and metaphysical terms rather than from a particular confessional 
(revelatory) point of view. An alternative theological understanding of religious 
studies is provided by Mark C. Taylor, whose work is discussed above. Since for 
Taylor theoretical science is itself essentially theological in character, reflection on 
the ultimate meaning of life can hardly be excluded from a proper understanding of 
religious studies on the grounds that it constitutes theology. And British theologian 
David Ford follows a similar line of postmodern thinking in this respect. The field 
of the study of religion, he argues, cannot appropriately be described by using the 
categories 'confessional' theology and 'neutral' religious studies, because in light of 
contemporary deconstructive criticism it is no longer possible to think any intellec- 
tual enterprise can be neutral. Consequently, religious studies, no less than theology, 
must make sure 'that questions of religious meaning, truth, practice, and beauty are 
given the academic significance that is due them . . .' (1999: 12). According to Ford, 
therefore, 'the academic study of religion' is appropriately institutionalized only in 
'departments of theology and religious studies' because religious studies, like theology, 
'must allow scope for intelligent faith leading to constructive and practical theologies' 

A second, distinct type of intellectual activity carried out under the banner of 
'religious studies' might well be called 'religious studies as tertiary religious educa- 
tion.' The primary task of religious studies here is not that of seeking explanations 
of religion, nor that of providing the metaphysical justification for religion, but rather 
of providing for an 'experiential understanding' of religion. In this guise, religious 
studies is neither the scientific debunking of religion nor the confessional promul- 
gation of it. Rather it is a humanistic appropriation of a range of human experience 
lending significance to our lives. In this sense, religious studies is not primarily 
directed to obtaining objective knowledge as it is concerned with the formation of 
the whole person. This view finds collective expression in Stephen Crites's 'Liberal 
Learning and the Religion Major' (1990), a report written on behalf of the AAR 

I 18 Key approaches to the study of religions 

Task Force on the Study in Depth in Religion,' undertaken in co-operation with a 
national review of 'Majors in the Arts and Sciences' initiated by the Association of 
American Colleges. 'The quest about religion,' according to Crites, 

plunges the student into the densest and most elusive issues of value, introduces 
the student into an ancient and enduring conversation, not always peaceful, 
about ultimately serious matters, engages the imagination of the student in the 
most daring imaginative ventures of human experience . . . For many students it 
is a disciplined encounter with an order of questioning that has affinities with 
their own struggles for personal identity. It is one way of joining the human 


Crites is quick to point out that the aim of the study of religion is not to convince 
students to join any particular religious tradition — which would be a form of sectar- 
ianism — but he nevertheless insists that the study of religion must aid students to 
discover that religion 'makes sense' and that this 'enlarges her or his own horizon 
of human possibility' (14). 

Such a notion of religious studies really differs very little from the kind of reli- 
gious education programs undertaken in modern, multicultural societies. Although 
religious education was at an earlier stage understood to involve the nurture of pupils 
in the dominant religious beliefs and traditions of a particular society, multicultur- 
alism has forced a change of intention into the enterprise. And although education 
is clearly distinguished from nurture, the educational task, with respect to religion, 
is still seen to involve more than simply teaching students about religion. As John 
Hull (1984) puts it, with respect to religious education in the British school system, 
just as schools have a responsibility to prepare pupils for participation in a political 
democracy, so is there 'a role for the school in preparing pupils to take an informed 
and thoughtful part in a pluralistic society' (48), which requires a thoughtful study 
of the multiple religious traditions it embodies. And that 'thoughtful study,' he insists, 
involves more than the empirical and theoretical study of the traditions concerned. 
'Religious education,' he writes, 

is a wider group of 'subjects' in which things like sensitivity training, moral educa- 
tion, personal relations and so on are set around religious studies as the periphery 
around the core. Religious education may thus be thought of as helping the pupil 
in his own quest for meaning. Religious studies is the inquiry after other peoples' 
meanings. The study of non-religious lifestyles is also a study of other peoples' 
meanings. So the question [of religious education] concerns the relation between 
my search for meaning and my study of other peoples' searches for meaning. 


For Hull, therefore, the plurality of subjects and activities involved in religious educa- 
tion is held together by 'the idea of informed existential dialogue' (54), which very 
much resembles the notion of religious studies represented in Crites's report to the 
AAR. And virtually the same conception of religious education holds sway in 
America, where scholars distinguish 'religion studies' from 'religious studies.' 'Religion 

Religious studies I 19 

studies,' argues Guntrum G. Bischoff, is appropriately intended to 'contribute to the 
student's growth in world-understanding and self-understanding' (1975: 132), an exer- 
cise clearly distinguishable from the religious instruction students receive in private 
religious communities. The task of such instruction is not merely to provide informa- 
tion about religion(s) but also to enable students to relate to a multicultural world. 
As Bischoff puts it: 

If we may define education generally as a process enabling a person to 
autonomously order his environment and himself into a meaningful world, and 
to relate himself to this world in a responsible way, we may define the primary 
educational objective of the public school as the enabling process which helps 
develop the young person's world-understanding and self-understanding. 


Religious studies, then, as Crites presents it in his report to the AAR, amount to a 
rather relaxed apology for religion in general, in the same sense as in programs of 
religious education. And accordingly, religious studies for Crites must actively engage 
the student in thinking through the question of the meaning of life, with the reli- 
gious studies instructor engaged as facilitator in the process. And insofar as the teacher 
of religious studies is involved in that process of 'forming' the student, she or he 
takes the place of the religious educator and theologian. 

The third, relatively widely held view of religious studies that can be discerned in 
the scholarly literature sees the enterprise to be essentially scientific. In this descrip- 
tion, however, I am using the concept 'enterprise' as defined by Robert A. McCaughey 
(1984) — as 'any organized understanding of sufficient magnitude and duration to 
permit its participants to derive a measure of identity from it' (xiii). As 'scientific,' 
the enterprise is chiefly characterized by a cognitive intention, taking for granted that 
the natural and social sciences are the only legitimate models for the objective study 
of religion; but it does not itself constitute a distinct scientific discipline. The primarily 
cognitive focus in this version of religious studies clearly distinguishes it from the first 
two types described above. It is not that the earlier types of religious studies wholly 
reject the contributions made by the natural and social sciences to their understanding 
of religion, but just that the cognitive intention that informs the sciences is subordi- 
nated to religious commitments or theological assumptions; that it is placed in 
the service of other goals, such as the formation of character or the achievement of 
some form of (salvific) religious enlightenment. The earlier exercises are nevertheless 
'academic enterprises,' because they are pursued by scholars in the context of the 
university, but they might be appropriately considered 'mixed genre enterprises' 
because they attempt to blend scientific and extra-scientific goals. Religious studies as 
a 'scientific enterprise,' however, is a naturalistic study of religion carried out in a 
wide array of complementary disciplines. And the review of the literature above 
provides evidence of the widely held view that the field is polymethodic and multi- 
disciplinary — as does the volume in which this essay appears. Religious studies, in 
this view, is not a separate discipline but instead a general rubric for the empirical 
and scientific study of religion. 

The fourth and final type of activity designated by 'religious studies' receiving some 
degree of general agreement among scholars in the field, is that it is a scientific 

120 Key approaches to the study of religions 

discipline on a par with other scientific disciplines. There is some measure of agree- 
ment, that is, that the notion of religious studies as merely multidisciplinary and 
polymethodic is somehow incoherent, and that there ought to be a unifying prin- 
ciple guaranteeing methodological coherence and genuine complementarity in the 
multidisciplinary contributions to the understanding of religion. 'In this situation,' 
writes Michael Pye, 

there may arise the temptation to enjoy the flight to our personal interests in 
one specific religious tradition, to disappear entirely into some specialized philo- 
logical, textual study, or to pursue just one or two analytical questions to the 
exclusion or at least the relative disregard of others. Such anarchy may seem 
attractive, but then it also implies the dissolution of 'religious studies' except as 
a flag of convenience. 

(1991: 52) 

A search for what it is that might make of religious studies a discipline, rather than 
merely a disparate set of disciplines interested in one or other aspect of religion, has 
prompted a variety of answers, two of which I will set out briefly here. (In one sense, 
of course, this is simply not possible, because it would imply that religious studies is 
itself an autonomous discipline in addition to all the other disciplines of the so- 
called multidisciplinary exercise, which, it appears, would be paradoxical if not simply 
contradictory.) As has already been pointed out above, some scholars in the field 
believe the fundamental question of the truth of religion alone constitutes a unifying 
force among the many disciplines of the field. But this kind of approach, as I have 
also pointed out above, is religious and metaphysical rather than scientific, and there- 
fore is not appropriately considered characteristic of a 'discipline' as that concept is 
employed in the modern research university. Others, however, have suggested natu- 
ralistic alternatives that might provide the kind of coherence needed to make of the 
many disciplines a coherent project. Michael Pye (1999), for example, has argued 
that religious studies can be understood as a disciplinary project on the basis of a 
judicial 'clustering' of the methodologies used by the various social sciences involved 
in the study of religion. Instead of the miscellaneous list of disciplines usually cited 
in descriptions of the field, he suggests that there are disciplines that 'correlate and 
integrate those features of academic (or in some languages "scientific") method which 
are particularly necessary in the study of religions' (195), which, 'clustered' together, 
make of religious studies a discipline. Pye lists three methodological strands, which, 
when integrated, make up the discipline: the relation between subject-matter and 
method; the relation between sources and method; and the methodological require- 
ments. And he argues (not wholly persuasively) that a complete argument about 
what the clustering of these strands might look like is not necessary to understanding 
religious studies as a discipline. An alternative view of what makes religious studies 
a discipline is hinted at by Eric J. Sharpe in his history of the field (1986a). Attention 
in this regard, he suggests, must be paid to the role of theory in the academic study 
of religion in the late nineteenth century. The early history of the academic study 
of religion, he writes, involved independent theological, philosophical, and other 
scholarly approaches to the study of religion, and therefore lacked a single guiding 
principle of method to provide it coherence. However, argues Sharpe, unity was 

Religious studies I 21 

brought to the field with the application of theory to the understanding of religion 
because, as he puts it, it made it possible for 'the real focus of the study of religion 
... to be located, not in transcendental philosophy, but in . . . this-worldly cate- 
gories' (24). Sharpe also points out that, as evolutionary theory became associated 
with simplistic notions of progress and fell into disrepute, the students of religion 
became interested in 'close and detailed studies in a limited area rather than in vast 
comparison and synthetic pattern-making' (174). Thus, with the demise of theory, 
the study of religion once again became multidisciplinary, without focus, and there- 
fore lost its disciplinary quality. By implication, then, the disciplinary quality of the 
academic study of religion can only be found in theory, for it is only theory that can 
provide a coherent framework that can make sense of the contributions of the various 

In providing an account of the diversity of meanings of 'religious studies' alive and 
well in university education today, the task of this essay has been addressed. Yet one 
might reasonably raise the question as to whether all these usages are appropriate to 
the modern university — and if not, which ones are? The answer to these questions, 
of course, depends upon one's conception of the nature of the modern university 
and, concomitantly, of the academic vocation. It is clear that, if one thinks of the 
academic vocation as concerned not simply with gaining objective knowledge of the 
world in which we live but also with edification — and therefore with the formation 
and cultivation of character — the first two types of religious studies are not only 
appropriate to the university but also necessary. If however, the raison d'etre of the 
modern university is the search for and dissemination of knowledge, and the skills 
involved in the process, then the task of religious studies must be purely cognitive, 
committed to the advancement of objective and neutral knowledge about religion 
and religions. In this kind of milieu, then, only the last two types of religious studies 
outlined would be appropriate, for that kind of religious studies scholarship is 
concerned simply with what advances knowledge. If, per impossibile, one conceives 
of the academic vocation as involving both tasks, all the types of religious studies 
outlined above are acceptable, even though it is clear that the first aspect of such 
an academic vocation would necessarily conflict with the second. The fact of the 
matter, however, is that the modern Western university is generally understood as 
essentially a research institution dedicated to the advancement of objective know- 
ledge about the world and we can conclude, therefore, that 'religious studies' should 
be understood to refer to a purely scientific undertaking. 


Anderson, Charles P., 1972 Guide to Religious Studies in Canada, (3rd edn), Toronto: 

Corporation for the Publication of Academic Studies in Canada. 
Badertscher, John M., Gordon Harland, and Roland E. Miller, 1993 Religious Studies in 

Manitoba and Saskatchewan, Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press. 
Benson, Thomas L., 1987 'Religious Studies as an Academic Discipline,' in Mircea Eliade 

(ed.), Encyclopedia of Religion, New York: Macmillan Press, Vol. XIV, pp. 88-92. 
Bischoff, Guntrum G., 1975 'The Pedagogy of Religiology,' in Anne Carr and Nicholas 

Piediscalzi (eds), Public Schools Religion-Studies: 1975, Missoula: American Academy of 

Religion, pp. 127-35. 

122 Key approaches to the study of religions 

Bowlby, Paul, W. R., 2001 Religious Studies in Atlantic Canada: A State -of- the -Art Review, 

Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier University Press. 
Braybrooke, Marcus, 1990 'Religious Studies and Interfaith Development,' in Ursula King 

(ed.), Turning Points in Religious Studies, Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, pp. 132—41. 
Cahill, Joseph, 1982 Mended Speech: The Crisis of Religious Studies and Theology, New York: 

Cain, Seymour, 1987 'History of Study,' in Mircea Eliade (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Religion, 

New York: Macmillan Press, Vol. XIV, pp. 64-83. 
Capps, Walter H., 1995 Religious Studies: The Making of A Discipline, Minneapolis: Fortress 

Cole, W. Owen, 1990 'The New Educational Reform Act and Worship in County Schools 

of England and Wales,' in Ursula King (ed.), Turning Points in Religious Studies, Edinburgh: 

T. &T. Clark, pp. 117-31. 
Crites, Stephen (et al.), 1990 'Liberal Learning and the Religion Major' (an AAR Task Force 

on the Study in Depth of Religion), Syracuse: American Academy of Religion. 
Cunningham, Adrian, 1990 'Religious Studies in the Universities: England,' in Ursula King 

(ed.), Turning Points in Religious Studies, Edinburgh: T. 6k T. Clark, pp. 21-31. 
Davis, Charles, 1974-5 'The Reconvergence of Theology and Religious Studies,' Studies in 

Religion, 4, pp. 205-21. 
Ford, David, 1999 Theology: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press. 
Fraser, Brian ]., 1995 The Study of Religion in British Columbia: A State-of-the-Art Review, 

Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press. 
Hart, D. C, 1992 'American Learning and the Problem of Religious Studies,' in G. M. 

Marsden and B. J. Longfield (eds), The Secularization of the Academy, Oxford: Oxford 

University Press, pp. 195-233. 

2000 The University Gets Religion: Religious Studies in American Higher Education, 

Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. 

Hart, Ray, 1991 'Religious and Theological Studies in American Higher Education,' Journal 

of the American Academy of Religion, 69, pp. 715-827. 
Hull, John, 1984 'Religious Education in a Pluralistic Society,' in John Hull, Studies in Religion 

and Education, London: The Falmer Press, pp. 45-55. 
Jackson, Robert, 1990 'Religious Studies and Developments in Religious Education,' in Ursula 

King (ed.), Turning Points in Religious Studies, Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, pp. 102-16. 
King, Ursula (ed.), 1990 Turning Points in Religious Studies, Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark. 
Kitagawa, Joseph M., 1959 'The History of Religions in America,' in Mircea Eliade and Joseph 

M. Kitagawa (eds), The History of Religions: Essays in Methodology, Chicago: University of 

Chicago Press, pp. 1-30. 

1983 'Humanistic and Theological History of Religion With Special Reference to the 

North American Scene,' in Peter Slater and Donald Wiebe (eds), Traditions in Contact and 
Change: Selected Proceedings of the XlVth Congress of the International Association for the History 
of Religions, Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, pp. 553-63. 

Klostermaier, Klaus K. and Larry W. Hurtado (eds), 1991 Religious Studies: Issues, Prospects, 

and Proposals, Winnipeg: University of Manitoba and Scholars Press. 
Laporte, Jean-Marc, 1993 'Review of Religious Studies in Ontario: A State-of-the-Art Review,' 

Toronto Journal of Theology, 9/2, p. 249. 
McCaughey, Robert A., 1984 International Studies and Academic Enterprises: A Chapter in the 

Enclosure of American Learning, New York: Columbia University Press. 
Myscofski, Carol and Richard Pilgrim (et al.), 1993 'Religious Studies and the Redefining 

Scholarship Project: A Report of the AAR Committee on "Defining Scholarly Work",' 

Religious Studies News, 8/3, September, pp 7-8. 
Nesbitt, Eleanor, 1990 'Sikhism,' in Ursula King (ed.), Turning Points in Religious Studies, 

Edinburgh: T. 6k T. Clark, pp. 168-79. 

Religious studies I 23 

Neufeldt, Ron W., 1983 Religious Studies in Alberta: A State-of-the-Art Review, Waterloo: 

Wilfrid Laurier University Press. 
Novak, Michael, 1971 Ascent of the Mountain, Flight of the Dove: An Introduction to Religious 

Studies, New York: Harper & Row. 
Ogden, Schubert M., 1986 (1975) 'Theology in the University,' in Schubert M. Ogden, On 

Theology, San Francisco: Harper & Row, pp. 121-33. 
Olson, Alan M., 1990a 'Religious Studies,' in Encyclopedia of Religious Education, Iris V. Cully 

and Kendig Brubaker Cully (eds), San Francisco: Harper & Row, pp. 549-51. 
Olson, Alan M., 1990b 'University,' in Encyclopedia of Religious Education, Iris V. Cully and 

Kendig Brubaker Cully (eds), San Francisco: Harper & Row, pp. 673-4. 
Prozesky, Martin, 1990 'South Africa's Contribution to Religious Studies,' Journal of Theology 

of Southern Africa, 70, pp. 9-20. 
Pye, Michael, 1991 'Religious Studies in Europe: Structures and Desiderate,' in Klaus K. 

Klostermaier and Larry W. Hurtado (eds), Religious Studies: Issues, Prospects and Proposals, 

Winnipeg: University of Manitoba and Scholars Press, pp. 39-55. 

1994 'Religion: Shape and Shadow,' Numen, 41, pp. 51-75. 

1999 'Methodological Integration in the Study of Religions,' in Tore Ahlback (ed.), 

Approaching Religion (Vol. I), Abo: Abo Akademic University Press, pp. 189-205. 

Remus, Harold E., 1988 'Religion as an Academic Discipline' (Part I: 'Origins, Nature and 
Changing Understandings'), in Charles H. Lippy, Peter M. Williams (eds), Encyclopedia of 
the American Religious Experience, Vol III, New York: Charles Scribners Sons, pp. 1653-65. 

William Closson James, and Daniel Fraikin (eds), 1992 Religious Studies in Ontario: A 

State-of-the-Art Review, Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press. 

Reuben, Julie, 1996 The Making of the Modern University: Intellectual Transformation and the 

Marginalization of Morality, Chicago: Chicago University Press. 
Riley, Philip Boo, 1984 'Theology and/or Religious Studies: A Case Study of Studies in 

Religion/Sciences Religieuses 1971-1981,' in Studies in Religion, Vol. 13, pp 423-44- 
Rousseau, Louis, and Michel Despland (eds), 1988 Les sciences religieuses au Quebec depuis 

1972, Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier Press. 
Sharpe, Eric J., 1986a Comparative Religion: A History, (2nd edn), London: Duckworth. 
1986b '"From Paris 1900 to Sydney 1985" (An Essay in Retrospect and Prospect),' in 

Victor C. Hayes (ed.), Identity Issues and World Religions: Selected Proceedings of the Fifteenth 

Congress of the International Association for the History of Religions, Redford Park: Flinders 

University Press, pp. 245-52. 

1987 'Methodological Issues', in Mircea Eliade (ed.), Encyclopedia of Religion, Vol XIV, 

pp. 84-8. 
Shepard, Robert S., 1991 God's People in the Ivory Tower: Religion in the Early American 

University, New York: Carlson Publishing Inc. 
Smart, Ninian, 1973 The Science of Religion and the Sociology of Knowledge, Princeton: Princeton 

University Press. 
1990 'Concluding Reflections: Religious Studies in Global Perspective,' 

in Ursula King (ed.), Turning Points in Religious Studies, Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 

pp. 299-306. 

1996 'Some Thoughts on the Science of Religion,' in Arvind Sharma (ed.), The Sum 

of our Choices: Essays in Honor of Eric ] . Sharpe, Atlanta: Scholars Press, pp. 15-25. 

1997 'Religious Studies in Higher Education,' in John R. Hinnells (ed.), The New 

Penguin Dictionary of Religions, London: Penguin, pp. 420-1. 

1998 'Methods in My Life,' in Jon R. Stone (ed.), The Craft of Religious Studies, New 

York: St. Martin's Press, pp. 18-35. 

1999 'Foreward,' in Peter Connolly (ed.), Approaches to the Study of Religion, London: 

Cassell, pp. ix-xiv. 

124 Key approaches to the study of religions 

Taylor, Mark C, 1994 'Unsettling Issues,' Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 
LXII/4, pp. 949-963. 

1998a 'Introduction,' in Mark C. Taylor (ed.), Critical Terms for Religious Studies, 

Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 1-19. 

1998b 'Retracings,' in Jon R. Stone (ed.), The Craft of Religious Studies, New York: St. 

Martin's Press, pp. 258-276. 

1999 About Religion: Economics of Faith in Virtual Culture, Chicago: University of Chicago 

Thiemann, Ronald F., 1990 'The Future of an Illusion: An Inquiry Into the Contrast Between 

Theological and Religious Studies,' Theological Education, 26/2, pp. 66-85. 
Walls, Andrew F., 1990 'Religious Studies in the Universities: Scotland,' in Ursula King (ed.), 

Turning Points in Religious Studies, Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, pp. 32-45. 
Ward, Keith, 1990 'The Study of Truth and Dialogue in Religion,' in Ursula King (ed.), 

Turning Points in Religious Studies, Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, pp. 221-231. 
Williams, Cyril, 1990 'Religious Studies in the Universities: Wales,' in Ursula King (ed.) 

Turning Points in Religious Studies, Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, pp. 46-56. 

Further reading 

McCutcheon, Russell, 1997 Manufacturing Religion: The Discourse on Sui Generis Religion and 

the Politics of Nostalgia, New York: Oxford Press. 
McCutcheon, Russell and Willi Braun (eds), 1999 Guide to the Study of Religion, London: 

Preus, S., 1987 Explaining Religion: Criticism and Theory from Bodin to Freud, New Haven: Yale 

University Press. 
Reuben, Julie, 1996 The Making of the Modern University: Intellectual Transformation and the 

Marginalization of Morality, Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 
Sperber, Daniel, 1996 Explaining Culture: A Naturalistic Approach, Oxford: Blackwell. 
Wiebe, Donald, 1999 The Politics of Religious Studies: The Continuing Conflict with Theology in 

the Academy, New York: St. Martin's Press. 

Chapter 7 

Sociology of religion 

Martin Riesebrodt and Mary Ellen Konieczny 

Until the end of the 1970s most sociologists of religion seemed rather confident 
about their understanding of religious phenomena. We all more-or-less knew that 
modern societies were undergoing a process of secularization. Of course, this process 
could take different forms in different societies depending on their institutional order 
or religious culture. Certainly, very few sociologists expected religion to totally disap- 
pear. Most assigned to religion a legitimate space in the private sphere. Many assumed 
that religious institutions would undergo a process of internal secularization and would 
increasingly adapt to the requirements of modern institutions while maintaining their 
religious symbolism. Others expected religious values to permeate modern societies, 
leaving behind traditional forms of religion. Some imagined that national ideologies 
or civil religions would functionally replace religious traditions. But hardly anybody 
was prepared for the dramatic resurgence of religion that we have witnessed over the 
last two decades in which religion has re-emerged as a relatively autonomous public 
force, a marker of ethnic identities, and a shaper of modern subjects and their ways 
of life. 

The renewed global importance of religion from North America to Japan, from 
Africa to Korea, from Latin America to India and Sri Lanka, from Iran to Poland 
has had a profound impact on the sociology of religion. It not only provided the 
discipline with an opportunity to revive the empirical study of religious phenomena 
on a global scale — more importantly, it challenged its conventional theoretical 
perspectives. Social theorists had to cope with their own cognitive dissonance 
between their expectation of secularization on the one hand and the actual resurgence 
of religion on the other. 

The two most typical reactions to this challenge have been denial and instant 
conversion. Some authors have simply insisted that their expectations of modern- 
ization and secularization are basically sound. Focusing on the resurgence of religion 
in 'third world' countries has allowed them to pretend that these revivals of religion 
are part of an ongoing 'modernization' process. Not surprisingly, many have taken 
pains to detect a 'Puritan spirit' or an 'inner-worldly asceticism' in such movements. 
Other authors have chosen the opposite route of instant conversion, denying any 
general trend towards secularization in the West and elsewhere. According to them, 
secularization or the 'disenchantment of the world' are not general trends related to 
social differentiation and the rationalizing effects of capitalism, science, and bureau- 
cracy as most theories had assumed, but are just an effect of European-style religious 
monopolies. This present state of uncertainty and confusion in the sociology of 

126 Key approaches to the study of religions 

religion offers a good opportunity to review the development of the discipline from 
its nineteenth century origins to the present, and to speculate about future directions 
it might take. 

Three classical paradigms 

The sociology of religion emerged from the philosophy of the Enlightenment on the 
one hand and its Romantic critique on the other. Although it attempts to make reli- 
gion the object of scientific study, sociology has inherited certain presuppositions from 
the philosophical discourse that have shaped its perspectives on religion in different 
ways. In order to better understand the development of the sociology of religion, one 
has to consider how social scientific understandings of religion are informed by basic 
assumptions about Western modernity, the course of history, and the place of human 
beings in this world. Three classical paradigms had the strongest impact on the 
discipline: the approaches of Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, and Max Weber. 

Karl Marx (1818-1883) 

For Marx, as for his teacher Hegel, history follows a logic through which human 
beings emancipate themselves from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom 
and self-realization. However, for Marx, unlike Hegel, the engine of this develop- 
ment is not the dialectics of the 'world spirit' but that of the material conditions of 
existence. Human beings realize themselves in the process of the production and 
reproduction of their concrete lives. This takes place through actors' engagements 
in the technical and technological control of nature, in conjunction with the social 
relations through which humans exercise this process of control. An increasing 
control of nature leads to an increasing division of labor, creating class distinctions 
initially based upon gender. In particular the differentiation between manual and 
intellectual labor causes drastic inequality based on the ownership of private prop- 
erty. In early socioeconomic stages, 'nature' seems rather mysterious, whereas with 
increasing control of natural forces and increasing class differentiation, 'society' 
becomes more unfathomable. 

In other words, modern science and technology have produced an unprecedented 
rational understanding and practical control through which nature has become widely 
demystified. However, capitalism has produced an extreme class differentiation 
between manual and intellectual labor as well as between owners of the means of 
production and workers. These social relations are usually not comprehended as they 
actually are, but are misunderstood, misrepresented, and mysticized. 

The reasons for this mystification are manifold, but all based upon the alienating 
structures of modern socioeconomic relations. There are the privileged, who have an 
interest in legitimation. They produce and spread an ideology of self-justification, 
which is in part strategic - perhaps even cynical - and in part self-deluding. Then 
there are the workers, who are alienated from each other through competition, and 
deprived of their creativity and self-realization through the mechanical character of 
their work and the loss of control over its products. Finally, misrecognition lies in 
the very nature of commodity production itself, since the interaction between social 
actors appears in the form of an exchange relation between products. 

Sociology of religion 127 

For Marx, religion plays an obvious role in these processes. In early socioeconomic 
stages, religion consists mainly in a response to the mysteriousness of nature and 
expresses humanity's lack of understanding and control. But in more advanced stages, 
religion increasingly distorts the understanding of the true nature of social relations 
by expressing the alienation inscribed into class structures. Religion, by creating the 
illusion of a transcendental power of perfection, which demands submission to the 
status quo, also prevents social actors from collectively establishing a social order that 
would allow them to realize their full potential as social and creative human beings. 

In order to overcome alienation, it is necessary but not sufficient to criticize reli- 
gious consciousness. Rather, one has to overturn the class structure of capitalism and 
change the mode of production. Once this has happened, religion would disappear 
and people would be able to understand and control society as rationally as they do 
nature and they would be free to realize their true natures as social and creative 

Since for Marx religion does not represent the source of human alienation, but 
just expresses it, this approach does not pay much attention to the study of religion 
per se. Although the Marxian perspective that religions reflect the structures of social 
relations in which they appear holds true for all social scientists to a certain degree, 
a rather narrow reading of Marx has led to a long and unfortunate neglect of the 
study of religion in the Marxian tradition. Only recently have social scientists recap- 
tured the fruitful aspects of the Marxian perspective while giving up the teleological 
view of history. Here the contributions of Jean and John Comaroff are especially 
important (Comaroff and Comaroff 1991, 1995). 

Emi/e Durkheim (1 858-1 9 1 7) 

While Marx's understanding of history and humanity is based on a model of human 
and social emancipation, Durkheim's is based on social order and its civilizing, moral- 
izing, and socializing mission. According to Durkheim, human beings have a double 
nature consisting of body and soul. On the one hand, they are driven by bodily 
needs, following their egoistic natural drives and desires; on the other, they have 
souls, which are social and moral. The task of any social order is to keep the egoistic 
drives of individuals in check, and to transform these individuals into social and 
moral agents who conform to group norms (Durkheim 1914/1960). 

Although civilization progresses for Durkheim, the basic problem stays in many 
respects the same. What changes is the division of labor, and with it, modes of 
thought and methods of social integration. An increasing division of labor, which 
according to Durkheim has been institutionalized not for its unforeseeable greater 
efficiency but for the social regulation of competition, makes people much more inter- 
dependent than they were in segmentary societies. Segmentary societies, then, need 
much stronger integration through beliefs and rituals than modern ones. 

Nevertheless, any social order only works when people share the basic categories 
of thought and moral beliefs, and reinforce them through collective rituals. These 
shared beliefs and practices originate in religion, which is based on the distinction 
between sacred and profane. Categories of thought such as space, time, cause, and 
number originate in this distinction. Religion, therefore, is the source of thought and 
knowledge but — following Comte - Durkheim argues that with the progress of 

128 Key approaches to the study of religions 

civilization other modes of thought, especially science, replace religion at least in 
part. However, this is only a difference in degree, not in kind; since scientific know- 
ledge also becomes obligatory it is, so-to-speak, a higher form of religion. In addition 
science cannot replace the emotional side of religion, which attaches people to each 
other and to societies' symbols. This can be only generated by dense interaction in 
extraordinary and often ecstatic situations, such as public ceremonies. 

Durkheim's understanding of religion assumes a basic identity between the polit- 
ical and the religious unit and appears to be heavily informed by the modern Western 
idea of the nation. Durkheim's theory directly jumps from tribal religion to civic reli- 
gion — omitting all examples of religious pluralism, conflicts between and within 
religious traditions, and the disintegrative effects of religions. Durkheim suggests via 
his study of Australian 'totemism' that all societies need a unifying system of thought 
and symbols, norms and values, identifying nationalism as the new 'civic religion' 
adequate to modern industrial societies (1912/1995). However, for Durkheim also 
nationalism is only a necessary intermediary stage in the emergence of the positivist 
Utopia of human universalism. Durkheim's understanding of religion has been the 
most dominant theoretical influence in sociology and anthropology. 

Max Weber (1864-1920) 

For Weber neither human emancipation nor social order and integration are the 
central points of departure. Neither does history have an intrinsic goal, nor does 
modernity's central problem lie in the control of egoistic individualism. For Weber, 
modern Western societies are not underregulated but rather overregulated. In the mod- 
ern bureaucratic age there is hardly any space left to lead a meaningful life according 
to any principles other than utilitarian ones. Weber's central question, therefore, is 
how this modern rationalist system of external social control and internalized self- 
control has developed historically, and how modern individuals as cultural beings can 
respond to it with dignity and responsibility. 

Weber's sociology of religion begins with an inquiry into the religious sources of 
modern capitalist culture, and ends with cross-culturally comparative studies of ration- 
alism embedded in the religious traditions of China, India, and ancient Judaism. 
From these studies, Weber draws the conclusion that the West has undergone a 
unique kind and direction of rationalization, which has affected not only its economic 
system and its principles of bureaucratic organization but also its culture - especially 
its science, music, art — and even its attitudes towards sexuality. 

Weber certainly agrees with the Marxian insight that people make their own history 
but do not control it. Weber's sociology is full of examples of unintended and often 
paradoxical historical outcomes of meaningful social action and interaction. The 
Protestant Ethic and the 'Spirit' of Capitalism is a prime example; in this essay, Weber 
argues that the religious ethos of inner-worldly asceticism became a motivational 
force contributing to the emergence of a bourgeois, modern Western type of capi- 
talism. This ethos is characterized by self-control, methodical life conduct directed 
towards work in a calling, and acquisition through a regularly and rationally pursued 
business. Weber shows how this originally religious ethos has been transformed in 
the course of capitalist development into our modern, religiously empty work habits 
and utilitarian attitudes. Although himself religiously 'unmusical', Weber saw a 

Sociology of religion 129 

certain dignity in these religious attempts to transcend the narrow boundaries of util- 
itarian interests through the dramatization of ultimate values and the principled 
shaping of one's life according to them. It is here that religions have played a major 
part in the formation of religious elites, which in turn, through their high status and 
roles as counselors of the laity, have had a significant impact on the shaping of 
different civilizations. 

While 'primitive' religions were hardly differentiated from the pursuit of 'this- 
worldly' interests, the rise of 'salvation' religions formulated by religious intellectuals 
and virtuosi defined religion as a separable sphere of interests. The very idea of salva- 
tion and the different paths to salvation defined the world in relation to an ultimate 
value, and restructured the attitudes and life conduct of social actors towards worldly 
spheres of interest. Of course, this did not take place independent of political and 
economic structures and developments, but it added a dimension of interests, which 
in turn could exert influence upon economic and political institutions and actors. 
According to Weber, religious ideas and interests are mediated by institutions, which 
develop their own dynamics in conjunction with the everyday needs of their followers. 

In the West, a very unique type of rationalism of 'world mastery' developed out 
of the confluence of the rationalism of Judaic ethical prophecy, Greek philosophy, 
Roman law, Christian monasticism and the emerging bourgeois economy of inde- 
pendent cities. This rationalism was taken up by parts of the Protestant Reformation 
and systematized into an attitude of inner-worldly asceticism. The rationalization 
processes set in motion by this religiously motivated ethos contributed to the disen- 
chantment of the world by rejecting all irrational means of attaining salvation, and 
promoted the emergence of rationally organized institutional orders and ethics. 
According to Weber, this process of disenchantment and secularization removed the 
religious ethic from central economic, political, and cultural institutions, freeing them 
from religious control. 

Whoever chooses to live a life based on religious principles can do so only against 
the institutionalized logic of 'unbrotherly' bureaucratic regimes that no longer recog- 
nize religious morality but instead value efficiency, performance, and utility. There- 
fore, in Western modernity, religion can only survive in more central social institu- 
tions if it adapts to their logics and more-or-less sanctifies them. It is only in small 
voluntary associations at the social margins that religion can preserve an ethos 
of universal brotherhood. According to Weber, there exists the possibility of new 
charismatic upheavals, changing people's inner attitudes - but given the rigidity and 
efficiency of bureaucratic systems, these revolutionary possibilities are rather unlikely 
to succeed in the modern West. 

Secularization, privatization, and civil religion 

All three classical paradigms did not expect religion to disappear, but certainly 
expected it to be more or less radically transformed in the modern world. The next 
generations of scholars elaborated these arguments in more detail, usually fusing the 
traditions of Durkheim and Weber as they understood them. Generally speaking, 
they tended to conceptualize religion as a central cultural institution and focused on 
its interaction with other institutions. Some placed emphasis upon the ways in which 
religions have an effect on social norms and life conduct, while others focused on 

130 Key approaches to the study of religions 

the ways religion was affected by socioeconomic transformations and processes of 
social differentiation. 

One school of thought developed out of Parsonian structural-functionalism and 
was most influential in the US. This approach considers the process of economic 
development in the West, driven by a religious, inner-worldly ascetic spirit, to be 
the paradigmatic form of modernization. Scholars working in this tradition claim 
that, as societies have modernized, generalized religious values have been increas- 
ingly subsumed into their broader cultures. The second major school of thought, 
often seen as more European in its orientation, built on the phenomenological tradi- 
tion of Alfred Schutz and focused on religion's capacity to provide a meaningful 
framework for the interpretation of human experience. Others, including Thomas 
Luckmann, David Martin, and Bryan Wilson, also built on the classical traditions 
and explored different aspects of secularization processes. 

Modernization and generalized values 

As translator of Max Weber's Protestant Ethic, Talcott Parsons (1902-1979) encour- 
aged his students to look for its analogs all over the world. The idea was to identify 
carriers of inner-worldly asceticism, which would promote the passage of 'underde- 
veloped' societies into a Western type of modernity. From our perspective, this agenda 
of the Parsons School is based on a rather peculiar reading of Weber. It not only 
ignores Weber's very ambiguous judgment on Western modernity and transforms it 
into a happy-go-lucky theory of modernization and progress; it also leaves aside 
Weber's analysis of the affinity between certain classes and status groups with partic- 
ular types of religious plausibility structures. Accordingly, scholars using this approach 
identified such diverse classes as reform bureaucrats and the military as potential 
carriers of modernization. Nevertheless, the Parsons School has produced some 
impressive studies, most importantly Robert Bellah's (1957) Tokugawa Religion and 
Shmuel Eisenstadt's (1968) reader on the Protestant Ethic and Modernization, both of 
which have shed new light on the relationship between religion and social change. 

Parsons (1963) and his students also further elaborated the Durkheimian perspec- 
tive and inquired into the integration of modern societies through generalized reli- 
gious values and civil religions. Parsons focused on the interpenetration of Christian 
(specifically sectarian Protestant) values into the very fabric of modern industrial 
(specifically American) society. According to Parsons, the generalization of volun- 
tarism and individualism made the modern US the most Christian society ever. 

Bellah's work typifies this view, especially in his evolutionary theory of religion 
(Bellah 1970). According to Bellah, humanity's need for religious symbols is a constant 
factor in social life — but as human societies have evolved over time, so have the 
content and dynamics of religious symbol systems. Historically, religion has developed 
alongside of social and self-development, and as societies have acquired greater know- 
ledge and have achieved greater capacity for social and self-transformation, religious 
belief has concurrently become characterized by individual choice. Bellah argues for 
a five-stage schema of the evolution of religion, ranging from primitive to modern. 
This schema views religion in the modern West - paradigmatically the Protestant US 
— as more highly developed and normatively better than other less rationalized and 
more magical forms. Bellah claims that the doctrinal diversity of Protestantism and 

Sociology of religion I 3 I 

the freedom of individuals to choose belief are not evidence of secularization, but 
rather evidence of human progress. 

Following ideas of civil religion earlier explored by Rousseau, Durkheim, and 
Parsons, Bellah sought institutional settings where essential American values such as 
civic activism and individualism were interpreted, dramatized, and ritually enacted. 
Focusing on Presidential addresses at certain decisive moments in American history, 
he identified expressions of nationally shared ultimate values and a vision of the 
nation's calling, and claimed civil religion's continuing if fragile existence in America. 
According to Bellah, the particulars of American civil religion have incorporated 
Protestant Christian themes of covenant, death, and resurrection or rebirth, and 
its ritual calendar emphasizes the central importance of family and local commun- 
ity in American democracy. Civil religion, through narrative and collective ritual 
experience, creates a moral and affective consensus for democratic participation. 

In later works, Bellah expresses concern that the actual practice of civil religion 
in the US has diminished to the point where it no longer provides moral cohesion, 
and worries that individualism threatens to undermine the moral consensus for partic- 
ipation upon which American democracy is built (Bellah 1975). In Habits of the 
Heart, Bellah concludes that an individualistic ethos cannot supply the moral cohe- 
sion needed for democracy, and relocates the affective and cognitive resources 
necessary for democratic participation back within institutional churches, especially 
liberal Protestant ones (Bellah et al. 1985). 

Building on Bellah's approach, Robert Wuthnow (1988) presents an alternative char- 
acterization of religion in the contemporary US. Wuthnow argues that, in contrast to 
the early twentieth-century US when religion was primarily allied with and supportive 
of the state, religion since the Second World War is increasingly politically polarized 
and often mobilized against government and other political actors. Brought about by 
post-war economic expansion and a strong and active state, and catalyzed by special 
purpose groups, the religious landscape in the contemporary US has been restructured: 
a cleavage between liberal and conservative religionists has replaced denominationalism 
as the primary source of identification and religio-political engagement. 

Collapsed canopies 

Peter Berger's articulation of a theory of secularization represents an alternative school 
of thought. Berger claims that religion's power to shape social life has largely dimin- 
ished in Western modernity because of institutional differentiation, the pluralization 
of worldviews, and a loss of plausibility structures. Berger grounds his theory in a phe- 
nomenological perspective, according to which religious worldviews provide shields 
from the chaotic, uncontrollable aspects of the world which humans inhabit. A reli- 
gious worldview is reproduced through socialization; since it dominates the social con- 
texts individuals are born into, they take it for granted and learn to interpret their 
experiences according to this cognitive structure. But religion can remain strong in 
societies only where it is supported by a dialectical, mutually sustaining, and mutually 
determining relationship with a social base or plausibility structure. Further, religion 
is at its strongest when it has a monopoly in a relatively stable society — when it com- 
prises a 'sacred canopy' within which individuals understand and interpret their social 
existence, and where there is an absence of competing interpretations. 

132 Key approaches to the study of religions 

It follows from this characterization that secularization is an inevitable result of 
change within the economic and social contexts upon which religious worldviews 
depend. Secularization occurs when a religious worldview and the social reality no 
longer coincide, because its plausibility structures erode, and a formerly monopolistic 
religious worldview becomes open to revision and a plurality of interpretations. Once 
the sacred canopy collapses, religion progressively loses its power to shape social life. 

Following in the tradition of Max Weber, Berger historically identifies the seeds 
of secularization in the rationalizing elements of Christian doctrine and institutional 
life, reaching back as far as the beginnings of Christianity. This rationalizing process, 
he argues, was a prerequisite for the development of industrial capitalism, which, 
through the creation of the bourgeoisie, definitively catalyzed the process of secu- 
larization in the Western world. Berger narrates the historical secularization process 
as one of progressive differentiation. Initially, religion is differentiated from the polit- 
ical sphere as the state becomes more autonomous from the church. As the social 
base upon which Christianity depends is further eroded, religion becomes increas- 
ingly relegated to the private sphere. Finally, religion itself is secularized, taking on 
market characteristics of pluralism, choice, and privatization. Organized in a denom- 
inational system, religious diversity has replaced the monopolistic sacred canopy; now 
individuals are exposed to many religious worldviews, and can choose among them 
according to individual preferences. In response, churches must increasingly act as 
competitors in a religious market situation. 

Berger's approach to religion and secularization has had a major impact on authors 
like Nancy Ammerman and James D. Hunter. Hunter (1983) examines the belief 
and practice of US evangelicals, accounting for the religious vitality of this group 
explicitly within the framework of secularization theory. And Ammerman (1987), 
while assuming a general secularization of modern life, looks to fundamentalists 
to explore an American religious phenomenon that is neither differentiated nor 
individualized and privatized. 

Whereas Berger sees secularization as a necessary consequence of modernization 
on a very abstract and general level, David Martin (1978) has focused on secular- 
ization from a concrete and historical, comparative institutional perspective. Rather 
skeptical about the concept of secularization, Martin shows in an admirable compar- 
ative study how secularization was conditioned by the character of religious 
institutions and their relationships to the state. Martin locates the occurrence of 
secularization at three different social levels of analysis: at the level of social insti- 
tutions, at the level of belief, and at the level of a people's ethos. He then proposes 
an ideal-typical schema that classifies the characteristics of nation states along several 
dimensions, and uses this schema to show how variation in the historical position 
of religion during state formation, the level of pluralism, and the logics embedded 
within religions practiced in particular settings, together produce different patterns 
of secularization. Martin's work did not simply assume secularization as a fact, but 
showed how different historical conditions produce secularization at different levels 
of society. For example, historically France's religious monopoly was politically chal- 
lenged by secular institutions, which lead to a comprehensive victory of secularism. 
In contrast, the separation of church and state and the pluralistic organization of 
religion in the US prevented conflict at the political level - and therefore, secular- 

Sociology of religion 133 

ization primarily occurred on the level of the religious ethos. Martin's work remains 
among the most sophisticated of empirical and theoretical studies of secularization. 

Invisible religions 

Toward the end of the 1960s and through the 1970s, secularization theories such as 
Berger's further crystallized and affirmed the view that religious decline in the modern 
West would inevitably progress. Empirical evidence of secularization was abundant 
in religion's increasing loss of power within political and cultural institutions, as well 
as in declining church attendance and aging congregations in many of the countries 
of Europe. Religion no longer occupied a place at modern societies' centers, and 
scholars took for granted that this state of affairs was a necessary consequence of 
modernization. Even where churches were filled, as they were in the US, it seemed 
clear that much of this practice, especially within liberal churches, was not so much 
religiously as socially motivated, reflecting the internal secularization of religious insti- 
tutions. For some scholars, however, this clear evidence of the decline of religion at 
the center of modern society propelled them to look for authentic religious expression 
in more hidden and less public arenas. 

Thomas Luckmann's (1967) work was a harbinger of this turn: he proposed a 
theory of secularization as privatization which claimed that religion was not disap- 
pearing in modernity, but that its locus had shifted from the public sphere to the 
inner personal experience of individuals. Like Berger, Luckmann's approach is 
phenomenological and interpretive, but his conceptualization of religion and his 
narrative of secularization depart from Berger's in important ways. 

In Luckmann's view, religion arises as a necessary part of the social-psychological, 
meaning-making process in which humans are individuated and selves created. 
Although religious institutions are historically common, it is not necessary that reli- 
gion be institutionalized for it to endure. Rather, religion endures in human history 
because it is a constitutive element of the formation of selves; it is the anthropological 
conditions giving rise to religion that are indeed universal. 

Luckmann describes the historical process of secularization in the West as a conse- 
quence of the endurance, growth, and internal workings of religious institutions. As 
churches grew, they developed secular interests and did not remain exclusively deter- 
mined by their religious functions. Specialization within these institutions required 
that religious norms become differentiated from secular norms, and the disjuncture 
between the two generated inconsistencies between doctrine and its institutional 
expression. Therefore, where previously religion was merely taken for granted, people 
were given cause to reflect upon it. Human reflection thereby transformed religion 
into an increasingly subjective reality. 

In this process, institutional religion became progressively emptied of meaning, 
and the erosion of public religion was replaced by its increased importance in the 
private sphere. In modern societies, then, religions exist in ever more privatized forms 
in modern societies and their meanings become properties of individual selves, and 
thus 'invisible.' In this view, secularization is the process of religious institutions' 
decline, but religion still endures as its social locations shift. Therefore, the new locus 
of religion in modernity is individuals' inner lives, even if this inner experience is 
largely unavailable to empirical scrutiny. 

134 Key approaches to the study of religions 

Lively margins 

While Luckmann theoretically located modern religion in the inner lives of individ- 
uals, other scholars examined the margins of society for the locus of religious beliefs 
and practices. Bryan R. Wilson's (1982) studies of sectarianism, executed mostly 
in the interpretive tradition of Weber, typify this approach. Wilson understood 
the central institutions of modern Western societies to be thoroughly secularized, 
but demonstrated that religious belief and practice endure among socially marginal- 
ized groups. He theorized the distinctiveness of these sectarian forms of religious 

Wilson observes that, whereas many in modern societies neither believe nor prac- 
tice religion and the behaviors of mainline church members are rarely driven by reli- 
giosity, within modern sects one can yet observe the powerful social consequences of 
religion in individual lives. Sects shape in their adherents undifferentiated religious 
identities, which spill over and suffuse the whole of their lives. For the socially mar- 
ginalized — for example, for temporal or generational groups such as adolescents and 
young adults — sects offer reassurance and comfort in the form of salvation beliefs. And 
with strong ethical norms and distinctive styles of life, sects bring their converts into 
a social world in which they can perceive themselves as integral to a social group, and 
in which they are aided in reinterpreting painful experiences of marginality. 

Consistent with secularization theory, sectarian religion is withdrawn from the 
public sphere; sectarians do not engage in public discourse and have little effect on 
society as a whole. While incorporating aspects of modernity's rational procedures 
in their organization and practices, they distinguish themselves from modern society 
by constituting themselves in opposition to it in their creation of undifferentiated 
identities and distinctive ways of life. It is Wilson's view that social conditions for 
sectarian adherence include not only social marginality in its modern forms, but also 
the prerequisite of the lack of previous religious socialization. 

Secularism, pluralism, and religious resurgence 

By the 1970s the old paradigm of the classics and their revisionist readings and new 
syntheses came under scrutiny, especially in the US. It certainly helped that simul- 
taneously the empirical-historical evidence had changed. A resurgence of religion 
had begun in the US: new religious movements spread all over the Bay area in 
California and conservative religious forces - Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Mormon 
- got organized in order to be saved from the 1960s (Tipton 1982). At the same 
time, a revival of religion was taking place on a global scale: Islam returned as a 
public force in the Middle East and beyond; religion played a forceful role in the 
shaping of ethnic identities and the fueling of ethnic conflicts from India and Sri 
Lanka (Tambiah 1992, 1996) to the Sudan and Ireland; and religious movements 
had began to challenge the secular state (Juergensmeyer 1993). These historical devel- 
opments called into question common sense assumptions among social scientists, and 
stimulated further developments in several areas - in secularization theory, in the 
application of alternative theoretical frameworks to the study of religion, in empir- 
ical work investigating religious resurgence, and in emerging bodies of work examining 
the relationship of religion to issues of ethnicity, nationalism, gender, and class. 

Sociology of religion 135 

Structural conditions of secularization 

In the wake of empirical evidence of religious revitalization, the problematic aspects of 
older secularization theories became the subject of increasing criticism, revision, and 
reformulation, resulting in a clearer definition of the conditions of secularization 
and an extended elaboration of secularization as a theory of social differentiation. 
Recognizing the empirical reality of religious resurgence, those working within secu- 
larization theory strove to theorize secularization in ways that did not entail its 
inevitability and irreversibility, and moved towards conceptualizations of secularization 
as an historical process to be located and explored. 

Following upon Martin's groundbreaking study, scholars sought to elaborate and 
distinguish secularization at different levels of analysis and to systematize character- 
istics of secularization within a larger conceptual framework. Among those taking 
this synthetic approach, Karel Dobbelaere's (1981) work is perhaps the most compre- 
hensive. Dobbelaere's argument for a multidimensional concept of secularization 
proposes that secularization be studied through the examination of interrelated 
processes at three different levels of analysis. Secularization can occur through laiciza- 
tion - the societal differentiation of religion from other social formations and 
institutions - through organizational religious change, such as may occur within 
denominations, and in the religious involvement of individuals. Dobbelaere suggests 
that the relations between secularizing tendencies at each of these three levels do 
not have determinate outcomes and should be empirically investigated in order to 
more clearly theorize them. Although Dobbelaere believes that secularization is a 
contingent process, not a necessary or irreversible one, his canvas of empirical studies 
led him to conclude that secularization is empirically, if not theoretically, linearly 
progressive in the modern West. 

Dobbelaere's theory has been influential in recent years, especially among those 
interested in analyzing organizational religious change. His formulation has been used 
successfully to elaborate the occurrence of organization-level secularization in the US 
through analyses of denominational leadership (Chaves 1993). Unlike the earlier 
comprehensive narratives, the newer frameworks have allowed scholars to explore 
the structural conditions of secularization at various levels of analysis, and have the 
capacity to provide explanations for empirically specific instances of secularization 
in modern societies. 

Homo religionomicus 

Concurrent with work advancing secularization theory in the 1970s and 1980s, other 
scholars began a move towards its wholesale rejection, and reinterpreted evidence of 
varying levels of religious participation among nation states and across religious 
denominations under a utilitarian rubric. These mostly North American scholars 
have been led by Rodney Stark and William S. Bainbridge (1979), who first used 
rational choice principles to construct a theory of religion. Stark and Bainbridge 
begin with the utilitarian assumption that individuals act to attain preferred ends 
while minimizing costs in an environment of opportunities and constraints. But the 
benefits desired by individuals are sometimes unattainable, either because of their 
social structural contexts, or because of the physical human limitations imposed by 
illness, disability, and the inevitability of death. In these life situations, religious 

136 Key approaches to the study of religions 

rewards — such as doctrines promising salvation and eternal life, or religious experi- 
ences providing comfort and emotional benefits — can be sought as substitutes. In 
this view then, religion is conceptualized as a system of compensators for benefits 
unattainable to individuals. And since the human condition is such that the need 
for compensators - especially as a substitute for the avoidance of death - does not 
change, demand for religion is understood as relatively constant. 

Since individual preferences are left unproblematized and demand for religious 
goods are assumed to be constant, the behavior of religious institutions — frequently 
theorized as following the laws of market dynamics — becomes a primary locus of 
investigation for those working within this school of thought. Some studies, such as 
Iannaccone's (1994) work on the vitality of strict churches, offer explanations for 
why particular religious organizations are especially attractive to seekers on the reli- 
gious market. Others, like the historical study of church membership in the US by 
Finke and Stark (1992), focus on the market behavior of religious organizations, 
claiming that variations in religious practice should be understood primarily as a 
supply side phenomenon. In their view, the amount of freedom allowed in the market, 
the degree of regulation, and the resulting level of competition among religious 
organizations determine levels of religious vitality in a given society. 

Rational choice theories of religion have gained broad currency among sociolo- 
gists of religion in recent years. At the same time, this approach has provoked heated 
criticisms (Bruce 1999; Chaves 1995; Ammerman 1998; Neitz and Mueser 1998), 
especially for its use of a utilitarian psychology — long ago demonstrated to be an 
inadequate theory of human motivations - and its general disinterest in problema- 
tizing religious preferences, whose social constructedness is obviously of critical 
interest in explaining religiously motivated behavior. 

A related recent development within sociology of religion in the US is the appro- 
priation of the economic metaphor, combined with a functionalist perspective, as 
the ground of a 'new paradigm' for the study of religion (Warner 1993). Scholars 
working within this perspective reject the idea that the US has undergone secular- 
ization over time, claiming instead that the disestablishment of religion in the US 
is causally related to high rates of church attendance and other forms of religious 
vitality. This new approach has fueled a lively debate around the hypothesis that 
religious pluralism causes higher levels of religious practice than monopolistic situa- 
tions — a debate that has rested in large part upon the technical evaluation of 
statistical evidence supporting the hypothesis (Voas, Olson, and Crocket 2002; Olson 
1999; Land et al. 1991). Moreover, empirical evidence from countries like Ireland, 
Poland, and Iran suggests that accounting for religious vitality requires a more 
complex explanation than internal religious pluralism. 

Deprivatization and the resurgence of religion 

Global evidence of religious resurgence has also been studied with particular atten- 
tion to politics, ethnicity and nationalism, and the construction of gendered 
identities. This strand of research has yielded some interesting empirical studies and 
promising theoretical developments. 

Jose Casanova (1994) interprets the re-emergence of religion in the public sphere 
as a reverse movement, or deprivatization, of the historical pattern of secularization 

Sociology of religion 137 

in the modern West. Like Martin and Dobbelaere, Casanova problematizes the 
concept of secularization, but moves beyond other theories by rearticulating secu- 
larization in such a way as to account for the re-emergence of religion in the public 

In his critical review of secularization theories, Casanova distinguishes between a 
central thesis — secularization as one instance of differentiation processes defining 
and driving modernization — and two subtheses — the decline of religion, and its 
privatization. He argues that, while secularization as differentiation is structurally 
bound to modernization, religious decline and privatization are historically contin- 
gent processes. Religious privatization is historically common because of religion's 
internal workings, the influence of liberalism, and external constraints upon religion 
brought about through the process of differentiation. But religion can also be depri- 
vatized, as he shows in case studies including the liberation theology movement in 
Brazil, Catholicism in Poland during the rise of Solidarity, the public pronounce- 
ments of American Catholic bishops in the 1980s, and US Protestant fundamentalist 
activities in the political sphere. Interrogating the public-private distinction through 
these cases, Casanova theorizes the deprivatization of modern religion and convinc- 
ingly shows that secularization is not only not a structurally inevitable consequence 
of modernity, but also one whose reversibility can be theoretically understood. 

James Beckford has likewise directed attention to the re-emergence of religion in 
the public sphere. Rather than examining the public behaviors of institutional 
churches, however, he studies the endurance of sects (Beckford 1975) and the emer- 
gence new religious movements (Beckford 1985). His work is characterized by a care- 
ful evaluation of the limits of theories of religion. Beckford (1989) argues that the 
categories and distinctions used, the questions asked and the conclusions reached by 
Durkheim, Marx, and Weber, as well as their descendants were profoundly shaped 
by the context of emergent industrial capitalism. The progression of industrial capi- 
talism and the diminution of power and influence of old religious institutions are 
linked empirically in this historical period, and also linked philosophically in the tra- 
dition of liberal thought. And while the present context of late industrial capitalism 
is both continuous with and distinguishable from that earlier variant, its discontinu- 
ous characteristics are critical for understanding religion in the present historical 
period. The analysis of religion in late industrial societies, therefore, must decisively 
move beyond conceptualizations of religion that emphasize its capacity to create val- 
ues and socialize individuals and focus upon secularization and religion's marginality. 

Beckford pays particular attention to the social structural features of advanced 
industrial capitalism that differ from its earlier historical form, and to emergent forms 
of religion in the modern West. The new sociological significance of religion, 
according to Beckford, includes its capacity to present the perception of new social 
realities in symbolic forms, and the potential of religion as a tool of mobilization 
against political establishments. He predicts that, in late industrial societies, the use 
of religious symbols is likely to be contested and controversial, since religion is no 
longer exclusively the domain of long enduring social institutions. Religion, then, 
will often be put to work outside the framework of religious organizations and state 
relations. He argues that the analysis of religion in contemporary societies will be 
most fruitful when religion is conceptualized not as a social institution, but as a 
cultural form or resource. 

I 38 Key approaches to the study of religions 

Beckford's studies of new religious movements support and inform this perspec- 
tive. Though new religious movements are very small in terms of the numbers of 
people who are shaped by them, and their ability to influence political actors is negli- 
gible, they have yet created a disproportionate amount of public controversy. Analysis 
of this public controversy draws attention to the way in which new religious forms 
in late industrial societies can serve as a barometer of issues of value and concern 
to broader segments of these societies. 

Steve Bruce has also produced a rich sequence of studies of religious resurgence, 
directing his attention mostly at conservative and fundamentalist forms of religious 
revival, and at the insertion of religious-political agendas into the public sphere - 
from anti-Catholicism in Scotland and the role of evangelicalism in the politics of 
Northern Ireland to the political mobilization of conservative Protestants by the New 
Christian Right. 

In studies of Ulster Protestantism (Bruce 1992, 1994), Bruce shows how religion 
was historically important in the creation of politically mobilized ethnic identities, 
and how religion continues to play a vigorous role in shaping the ways in which 
Protestants and Catholics perceive their positions within society. He elaborates the 
attraction of evangelical Protestantism and its agenda among non-evangelicals as an 
aspect of ethnic identity, and shows how these religio-ethnic identities are sustained 
through continued conflict in Northern Ireland. 

Bruce's studies of the New Christian Right and tele-evangelism in the US (Bruce 
1988, 1990) present a contrasting case in which conservative religion, though gaining 
in importance relative to the liberal mainline, has been much less successful politi- 
cally. Bruce argues that televangelism is a result — not a cause — of the growth of 
conservative Protestantism, and that its 'mass' characteristics entail a lessening of 
the distinctiveness of conservative religious agendas as the medium reaches for a wide 
audience. The successful fundraising strategies of these preachers have led to the 
creation of alternative social institutions, especially fundamentalist colleges and 
universities, which can sustain fundamentalist Protestantism into the future. But 
Bruce argues that, while conservative Protestants continue to press their political 
struggle against secular humanism, the New Christian Right is much less influential 
in American politics than it is commonly perceived to be. 

In his cross-culturally comparative study of the emergence of Protestant funda- 
mentalism in the US and Shi'ite fundamentalism in Iran, Martin Riesebrodt (1993 a) 
has attempted to conceptualize fundamentalism as a specific type of social move- 
ment. He argues that a central feature of fundamentalist movements across traditions 
consist in their emphasis on patriarchal structures of authority and social morality, 
with the strict control of the female body often perceived to be the solution to the 
problems of modernity. Riesebrodt claims that since the transformation of patriar- 
chal family structures and gender relations represent a central experience of the 
emergence of Western modernity, issues of patriarchal authority and morality are not 
just symbolizations of other, 'real' problems, but of central concern. However, because 
of their centrality, they also often come to symbolize the general protest against 
dramatic social change, marginalization, disappointed expectations of upward social 
mobility, and fears and experiences of downward mobility. 

Explorations of religious resurgence have included a number of studies of the success 
of mostly charismatic forms of Christianity in non-Western countries. It is again 

Sociology of religion I 39 

David Martin who set the example, with his groundbreaking comparative study of 
the global spread of charismatic Protestantism (Martin 1990). In this work he also 
draws an interesting historical parallel to the rise of Methodism in England during 
the Industrial Revolution. 

Recent work on the re-emergence of religion as a social force has also included a 
new emphasis on religion and gender. This body of work includes work both by soci- 
ologists and anthropologists and traverses a broad range of topics from women's 
religious participation and the construction of gendered identities (Stacey 1990; 
Davidman 1991) to the study of organizational processes surrounding denominations' 
ordination of women ministers (Chaves 1997; Nesbitt 1997). Perhaps the most 
promising studies executed under this broad rubric investigate modern women's adher- 
ence to conservative, evangelical, and fundamentalist religious groups articulating 
patriarchal gender ideologies (Kaufman 1991; Neitz 1987; Riesebrodt 1993b; Griffith 
1997; Gallagher 2003). Moving beyond explanations that view these women as 
passive victims of either male domination or false consciousness, these studies explore 
women's active roles in the appropriation and transformation of traditionalist forms 
of religion that, from a progressive Western point of view, are contrary to their real 
interests. They argue that participation in traditionalist religious associations often 
enables women to restructure and remoralize domestic social relations. These studies 
also make it clear that these women live under conditions in which gender equality 
does not present itself as a realistic option. However, not all studies agree with this 
rather benign view of religious traditionalism's effect on women and argue that, in 
cases where patriarchal structures of authority have not yet broken down, they tend 
to reinforce female submission under patriarchal authority (Riesebrodt and Chong 
1999; Chong 2002). 

Sociology of religion's future 

As we have seen, sociology's founding fathers have written some of their most 
important studies on religion, and several generations of scholars have made their 
living off the classics' theoretical capital. At the same time, the sociology of religion 
has become a rather marginal field within sociology. Since it predicted the decline 
of its object of study, scholars understandably doubted its significance. With the 
global resurgence of religion, however, the sociology of religion seems to have a 
future again. Since this future is not predetermined, but produced by sociologists 
themselves, we conclude by speculating on how the sociological study of religion can 
reclaim some of its original importance. 

First of all, a thorough revision of its theoretical perspectives is urgently needed. 
On the one hand, the resurgence of religious movements and personal piety on a 
global scale has shed serious doubt on the secularization thesis, which has strongly 
shaped most previous sociological theories of religion. On the other hand, it would 
be ludicrous to deny that secularization in terms of processes of institutional differ- 
entiation has actually taken place. Modern states are widely secular, and neither 
capitalism and bureaucracy, nor modern science and modern culture, are based on 
or even compatible with most religious principles. And since much of resurgent 
religion is directed against modern secularism, one would actually misunderstand 
these movements unless one acknowledges secularization as a fact. Therefore, the 

140 Key approaches to the study of religions 

sociology of religion must come to grips with these seemingly contradictory trends 
and must revise its theoretical frame in order to better explain how these processes 
are interrelated (Riesebrodt 2003). 

In order to achieve this goal, religion should be analyzed sociologically as a rela- 
tively autonomous system of meaningful actions and interactions — a system 
interconnected with other systems of practices, but not a reflection of them. The 
sociology of religion, moreover, should attempt to account for the subjective side of 
religion as well as its objective side, analyzing and theorizing the individual religious 
actor as well as the institutional order. With regard to the subjective side, sociology 
should resist utilitarian simplifications in the explanation of social action. In their 
intentions and effects, religious practices — like those in other spheres - are neither 
exclusively rational and instrumental nor exclusively irrational. Therefore, the 
rational choice model, which assumes a rarely existing ideal market situation where 
individuals act consistently according to the results of cost-benefit analyses, turns out 
to be either tautological or empirically false. Moreover, since rational calculation is 
usually not a pleasurable task — but often a rather painful one — people should not 
be expected to rationally calculate unless the stakes are relatively high. Ultimately, 
the rational choice model might be useful for religious market research, but for an 
understanding and explanation of religious practices it lacks sociological depth, since 
it widely ignores culture as well as social structure. 

As a second step in reclaiming lost relevance, the sociology of religion must over- 
come its rampant parochialism. To develop theoretical paradigms which work just for 
one country cannot be an option for a social science that wants to be taken seriously. 
Also the pervasive tendency for scholars to limit their studies either to their country 
of citizenship or to the religious tradition of their own affiliation attests to the provin- 
cialism of the discipline. Moreover, the sociology of religion would be well advised to 
leave the tiring debate on secularization behind, and turn instead to contemporary 
issues of real concern. Religion and gender has been studied empirically, but there is 
still plenty of theoretical work to do. In addition, new topics of study have emerged 
and re-emerged, such as religion and the legitimation of violence against oneself and 
others (Juergensmeyer 2000; Hall 2000), the impact of new technologies on the forms 
and spread of religion, and the globalization of religion (Beyer 1994). 

While the great majority of sociologists of religion have studied their own back- 
yard, they have widely left the study of religion in non- Western countries to anthro- 
pologists and historians of religion. With few exceptions, cross-culturally comparative 
work is absent from the sociology of religion. The roles played by religion in colonial 
and post-colonial situations and in processes of globalization have widely become the 
domain of anthropologists. In order to reclaim its legitimate place, the sociology of 
religion must eschew parochialism, broaden its perspective and revisit its theories 
in light of these global historical processes and contemporary events. The sociology 
of religion needs to become again a universal social science. 


Ammerman, Nancy T. 1987. Bible Believers: Fundamentalists in the Modern World. New 

Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. 
1998. 'Religious Choice and Religious Vitality: The Market and Beyond.' in Lawrence 

A. Young, (ed.) 1998: 119-32. 

Sociology of religion 141 

Beckford, James. 1975. The Trumpet of Prophecy: A Sociological Study of Jehovah's Witnesses. 

New York: John Wiley & Sons. 
1985. Cult Controversies: The Societal Response to New Religious Movements. London and 

New York: Tavistock. 

1989. Religion and Advanced Industrial Society. London: Unwin Hyman. 

Bellah, Robert N. 1957. Tokugawa Religion. New York: Free Press. 

1970. Beyond Belief. New York: Harper & Row. 

1975. The Broken Covenant. New York: Seabury Press. 

Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler and Steven M. Tipton. 1985. 

Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. Berkeley: University of 
California Press. 

Berger, Peter. 1967. The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. Garden 

City, NY: Doubleday. 
Beyer, Peter. 1994- Religion and Globalization. London: Sage. 
Bruce, Steve. 1988. The Rise and Fall of the New Christian Right: Conservative Protestant Politics 

in America 1978-1988. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 

1990. Pray TV: Televangelism in America. London and New York: Routledge. 

1992. The Red Hand: Protestant Paramilitaries in Northern Ireland. Oxford and New York: 

Oxford University Press. 

1994. The Edge of the Union: The Ulster Loyalist Political Vision. Oxford: Oxford University 


1999. Choice and Religion: A Critique of Rational Choice Theory. Oxford and New York: 

Oxford University Press. 
Casanova, Jose. 1994. Public Religions in the Modern World. Chicago: University of Chicago 

Chaves, Mark. 1993. 'Intraorganizational Power and Internal Secularization in Protestant 

Denominations.' American Journal of Sociology 99(1): 1-48. 
1995. 'On the Rational Choice Approach to Religion.' Journal for the Scientific Study of 

Religion 34(1): 98-104. 

1997. Ordaining Women. Culture and Conflict in Religious Organizations. London: Harvard 

University Press. 
Chong, Kelly H. 2002. Agony in Prosperity: Evangelicalism, Women, and the Politics of 

Gender in South Korea.' Ph.D. Thesis. Department of Sociology. University of Chicago. 
Comaroff, Jean and John. 1991. Of Revelation and Revolution: Christianity, Colonialism and 

Consciousness in South Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 
Comaroff, John and Jean. 1995. Of Revelation and Revolution: The Dialectics of Modernity on 

a South African Frontier. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 
Davidman, Lynn. 1991. Tradition in a Rootless World. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University 

of California Press. 
Dobbelaere, Karel. 1981. 'Secularization: A Multidimensional Concept.' Current Sociology 29: 

Durkheim, Emile. 1912/1995. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. Translated by Karen 

Fields. New York: Free Press. 
1914/1960. 'The Dualism of Human Nature.' In Kurt H. Wolff ed., Emile Durkheim, 

1858-1917: A Collection of Essays. Columbus: Ohio State University 1960: 325-40. 
Eisenstadt, Shmuel N. ed. 1968. The Protestant Ethic and Modernization. A Comparative View. 

New York: Basic Books. 
Finke, Roger and Rodney Stark. 1992. The Churching of America, 1776-1990: Winners and 

Losers in Our Religious Economy. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. 
Gallagher, Sally. 2003. Evangelical Identity and Gendered Family Life. New Brunswick, NJ: 

Rutgers University Press. 

142 Key approaches to the study of religions 

Griffith, R. M. 1997. God's Daughters: Evangelical Women and the Power of Submission. Berkeley 

and London: University of California Press. 
Hall, John R. 2000. Apocalypse Observed. London and New York: Routledge. 
Hunter, James D. 1983. American Evangelicalism: Conservative Religion and the Quandary of 

Modernity. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. 
Iannaccone, Laurence. 1994. 'Why Strict Churches are Strong.' American Journal of Sociology 

99(5): 1180-211. 
Juergensmeyer, Mark. 1993. The New Cold War! Religious Nationalism Confronts the Secular 

State. Berkeley: University of California Press. 
Juergensmeyer, Mark. 2000. Terror in the Mind of God. University of California Press. 
Kaufman, D.R. 1991. Rachel's Daughters: Newly Orthodox Jewish Women. New Brunswick, NJ: 

Rutgers University Press. 
Land, Kenneth C, Glenn Deane and Judith Blau. 1991. 'Religious Pluralism and Church 

Membership: A Spatial Diffusion Model.' American Sociological Review 56(April): 237-49. 
Luckmann, Thomas. 1967. The Invisible Religion. New York: Macmillan. 
Martin, David. 1978. A General Theory of Secularization. Oxford: Blackwell. 

1990. Tongues of Fire: The Explosion of Protestantism in Latin America. London: Blackwell. 

Neitz, Mary Jo. 1987. Charisma and Community. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Press. 

and Peter R. Mueser. 1998. 'Economic Man and the Sociology of Religion: A Critique 

of the Rational Choice Approach.' In Lawrence A. Young, (ed.) 1998: 105-18. 

Nesbitt, Paula. 1997. Feminization of the Clergy in America. New York and Oxford: Oxford 

University Press. 
Olson, Daniel V. 1999. 'Religious Pluralism and US Church Membership: A Reassessment.' 

Sociology of Religion 60: 149-74. 
Parsons, Talcott. 1963. 'Christianity and Modern Industrial Society.' In E. Tiryakian, (ed.), 

Sociological Theory, Values, and Sociocultural Change. New York: The Free Press, pp. 13-70. 
Riesebrodt, Martin. 1993a. Pious Passion. Berkeley: University of California Press. 

1993b. 'Fundamentalism and the Political Mobilization of Women'. In Said Arjomand 

(ed.), The Political Dimensions of Religion. Albany: SUNY Press. 

2003. 'Religion in Global Perspective'. In Mark Juergensmeyer (ed.), Global Religions: 

A Handbook. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

and Kelly H. Chong. 1999. 'Fundamentalisms and Patriarchal Gender Politics.' Journal 

of Women's History, Vol. 10, No. 4 (Winter): 55-77. 
Stacey, Judith. 1990. Brave New Families: Stories of Domestic Upheaval in Late Twentieth Century 

America. New York: Basic Books. 
Stark, Rodney and William Sims Bainbridge. 1979. A Theory of Religion. New York: P. Lang. 
Swatos, William H, Jr (ed.) 1999. 'The Secularization Debate'. Special Issue of Sociology of 

Religion, Vol. 60, No. 3, Fall 1999. 
Tambiah, Stanley J. 1992. Buddhism Betrayed! Religion, Politics and Violence in Sri Lanka. 

Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 
1996. Leveling Crowds: Ethnonationalist Conflicts and Collective Violence in South Asia. 

Berkeley: University of California Press. 
Tipton, Steven. 1982. Getting Saved from the Sixties: Moral Meaning in Conversion and Cultural 

Change. Berkeley: University of California Press. 
Tucker, Robert C. (ed.) 1978. Marx-Engels Reader. London: W.W. Norton. 
Voas, David, Daniel VA. Olson, and Alasdair Crockett. 2002. 'Religious Pluralism and 

Participation: Why Previous Research is Wrong.' American Sociological Review 67: 212-30. 
Warner, R. Stephen. 1993. 'Work in Progress Toward a New Paradigm of the Sociological 

Study of Religion in the United States.' American Journal of Sociology 98(5): 1044-93. 
Weber, Max. 1904/1958. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Tr. Talcott Parsons. 

London: Allen and Unwin. 

Sociology of religion 143 

1922/1993. The Sociology of Religion. Boston: Beacon Press. 

1946. From. Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, ed. by Hans H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, 

New York: Oxford University Press. 
Wilson, Bryan R. 1982. Religion in Sociological Perspective. New York: Oxford University Press. 
1990. The Social Dimensions of Sectarianism: Sects and New Religious Movements in 

Contemporary Society. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 
Wuthnow, Robert. 1988. The Restructuring of American Religion. Princeton, NJ: Princeton 

University Press. 
Young, Lawrence A. (ed.) 1998. Rational Choice Theory and Religion: Summary and Assessment. 

New York: Routledge. 

Chapter 8 

Anthropology of religion 

Rosalind I. J. Hackett 

The (sub-)field of enquiry known as anthropology of religion has been enjoying some 
long overdue renewal and recognition over the last decade, with the development 
of new texts and research areas, and new communities of scholars. This renewal of 
interest is related in part to the growing salience of religion on the world stage, not 
least as a marker of identity and source of resistance at the local, translocal, and 
transnational levels. This in turn has generated a greater need for those with special- 
ized knowledge of religious actors and formations in diverse and changing contexts. 

The scholarship of today, whether conducted by anthropologists who specialize in 
religion (e.g. Glazier 1999; Lambek 1993; Coleman 2000), or scholars of religion 
who employ anthropological theory and method (e.g. Brown 1991; Johnson 2002b; 
Geertz 2003), has come a long way from those early landmark texts of E. E. Evans- 
Pritchard on Witchcraft, Magic and Oracles among the Azande (1937) and Nuer Religion 
(1974 [1956]), and Emile Durkheim's The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912). 
The new look anthropology of religion can be traced to three general factors: first, 
the changing nature and location of the subject matter (e.g. movement of peoples, 
influence of mass-mediated religion, and market forces); second, greater inter- 
disciplinarity among academic disciplines, and third, the critical insights derived 
from post-colonialism, post-structuralism, and postmodernism. 2 In particular, the once 
discernible distinction between ethnography (empirical research on particular 
cultures/peoples/regions conducted through fieldwork and participant observation), 
and more generalized, theoretical reflection (anthropology or ethnology), is now 
blurred. Some would attribute this merging of the empirical, and cross-cultural, 
comparative approaches to the work of Clifford Geertz whose body of writings has 
been influential far beyond the bounds of traditional anthropology. 

As a way of offsetting the current difficulties of delineating academic boundaries 
due to the shared body of social and cultural theory, and the growing diversification 
of 'topics' or 'sub-fields,' Henrietta Moore argues that it is to the history of a disci- 
pline that we should look for its defining characteristics, rather than specific objects 
of inquiry (1999: 2). Similarly, many scholars consider that it is now more appro- 
priate to treat 'religion,' 'politics,' and 'economics' as pervasive rather than bounded 
categories (see, e.g. Herzfeld 2001: xi). Thus, it will behove us to trace briefly some 
of the roads traveled by anthropologists since the nineteenth century, in their quest 
to identify and interpret religious ideas, symbols, and practice. This will provide the 
backdrop needed to consider some of the more promising current and future devel- 
opments in anthropological approaches to religion. A comprehensive, representative 

Anthropology of religion 145 

synthesis of what Henrietta Moore calls the 'master narratives,' (1999: 10) as well 
as the conceptual basics of the anthropology of religion is not feasible in the present 
context, so the emphasis here is more on salient highlights, updates, and productive 
areas of debate. More extensive overviews and resources are available in the various 
texts/textbooks, and readers on the subject. 3 

Pioneering the discipline 

Anthropology enjoys an ongoing dialectical tension between its scientific and human- 
istic sides. This is well characterized by James Peacock in his valuable introductory 
text on the anthropological enterprise: 'Emphasis on culture and recognition of the 
subjective aspect of interpretation link anthropology to the humanities, yet its striving 
for systematization, generalization, and precise observation reflects the inspiration 
of the sciences' (1986: 92). When Sir Edward Tylor (1832-1917) was appointed 
to the first chair in anthropology in Britain (in the United States, Franz Boas 
(1858-1942) is regarded as the founding father of cultural anthropology), the field 
was then described as the 'science of man.' Influenced by the rationalist and evolu- 
tionist views of the nineteenth century, Tylor speculated that humans developed 
the idea of a soul, and from that, spirits, who might also inhabit natural phenomena, 
in their attempt to rationalize mysterious experiences such as dreams, trances, and 
hallucinations (1970 [1871]). He postulated that this early human belief, which 
he termed animism, eventually gave way to polytheism and monotheism, although 
traces of spiritualism persisted in beliefs such as reincarnation and immortality of 
the soul. 

French sociologist Emile Durkheim saw religious beliefs and concepts as the product 
of particular social conditions, rather than in intellectualist terms. In his classic 
work, Les Formes Elementaires de la Vie Religieuse (Durkheim 1965 [1912]), he argued 
that religion, predicated on a distinction between the sacred and the profane, was 
an essentially social phenomenon. Like many of the pioneering functionalist and 
evolutionist scholars, he turned to what he perceived to be some of the earliest 
and most elemental forms of religion, namely the totemic beliefs of the hunting and 
gathering Australian Aborigines. He argued that totemic symbols were mystically 
charged emblems of group loyalties, and that ritual expressed and strengthened the 
social organism. In fact, the 'collective effervescence' experienced at these ritual 
events was, he proposed, at the heart of the religious impulse. I. M. Lewis critiques 
Durkheim's insistence on the holistic approach, which was a type of 'social deter- 
minism,' trumping any 'historical determinism' or questions about the origins of 
social institutions (1976: 52). It did, however, constitute a significant advance over 
the decontextualized, comparative approach of Sir James Frazer, in his landmark 
study of ritual and magic from classic texts around the world, The Golden Bough 
(1996 [1890]). Frazer believed there was an evolution in the ways in which people 
made sense of, and tried to control, their worlds, from magic, through religion, to 

Frazer's lack of recognition of the scientific knowledge of 'primitive humanity' was 
roundly criticized by subsequent scholars. For example, Mary Douglas argued that the 
primitive worldview was not compartmentalized, but far more integrated and holistic 
than modern thought (Douglas 1975). Moreover, Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942) 

146 Key approaches to the study of religions 

challenged the 'armchair anthropology' of Frazer and other scholars of the time and 
became, in I. M. Lewis' words, 'the pioneer, bush-whacking anthropologist' who 
turned fieldwork in exotic cultures into a doctrine and tenet of professionalism (Lewis 
1976: 55-56). Based on the two years that he spent among the Trobriand Islanders 
in the Pacific, Malinowski explained religion and science in light of his function- 
alist theory of human needs (1954 [1925]). Magical rituals were performed when the 
situation was dangerous and unpredictable, such as fishing at sea, while religious 
rituals offered psychological assurance in the face of death. 

Malinowski's contemporary A. R. Radcliffe-Brown (1881-1955) was more theor- 
etically inclined and he developed the idea of 'structural-functionalism' (1952). From 
his viewpoint, social life was predicated on an orderly, organized foundation, and 
social organizations functioned in order to sustain social solidarity. His work spawned 
a whole generation of scholars. Drawing more on structural linguistics, French scholar 
Claude Levi-Strauss (1963) promoted the idea of structures or patterns of culture 
existing at various levels of consciousness. These structures have functional signifi- 
cance, serving to resolve contradictions and binary oppositions in human life (Lewis 
1976: 65—66). Later scholars, such as Luc de Heusch, have adapted structuralist 
principles to the complexities of religion elsewhere in the world (Heusch 1982). 

With E. E. Evans-Pritchard's still influential work on the thought of the Azande 
people of central Africa came a shift in focus from that of 'structure' to that of 
'meaning' ( Evans- Pritchard 1937). He was particularly interested in how their beliefs 
in witchcraft, oracles, and magic translated into the actions of their everyday lives 
and social relations. His study raised important questions about rationality and 
cultural translation, subsequently generating a body of literature on the similarities 
or differences between unfalsifiable, so-called primitive belief systems and supposedly 
rational scientific worldviews (see Gellner 1999: 29). Some of this discussion centered 
on the rationality of millenarian movements such as the 'cargo cults' of the Pacific 
region, in achieving political ends (Worsley 1968; Lattas 1998). Rodney Needham 
questioned the use of the term 'belief in many non- Western cultures (Needham 
1972). He preferred the notion of 'idea,' since it conveyed the embedded aspect of 
cosmologies, and did not connote distance between 'observers' and 'informants.' 

The intellectualist interpretation was given a new lease of life with Robin Horton's 
classic, and much debated, article, African traditional thought and Western science' 
(Horton 1993). In it he demonstrates the ways in which traditional African cultures 
and Western cultures both seek to explain, predict and control events. In addition 
to the continuities, he argues that the former thought-system is more closed than 
the latter. Both Horton's intellectualist view and Malinowski's functionalist perspec- 
tive were in fact more positive about the role of religion than French philosopher 
Lucien Levy-Bruhl's position that primitive people's thought was pre-logical, in that 
it did not separate cause from effect (Bennett 1996: 66). 

From modes of thought to modes of practice 

Viewing cosmologies as resources for, rather than determinants of, action can help 
lessen the persistence of evolutionist or binary thinking, argues Michael Herzfeld 
(2001: 192f.). It may also undermine the tendency to treat cosmologies in isolation, 

Anthropology of religion 147 

along with 'religion.' He advocates greater recognition of the role of choice and 
agency in how people (whether 'primitives,' ethnographers, or scientists) organize 
their ideas about the universe. Addressing the question of myth, Herzfeld is troubled 
by the ongoing distinction between mythical and historical narratives, as held by 
Mircea Eliade and Claude Levi-Strauss among others, as it leads to larger social 
distinctions between primitive or archaic and modern, and literate and non-literate 
societies. It also fails to recognize the ideological manipulation in both, as in nation- 
alist myths of origin. So, while drawing on the insights of some of the early 
functionalist accounts of myth as providing models for human behavior, explaining 
disorder and failure (theodicy), and creating 'timeless temporalities,' anthropology 
must be true to its comparativism, and turn its lens onto the cosmology of the West 
itself, revealing its own cultural specificities (Herzfeld 2001: 206). 

In his remarks on ritual, Herzfeld again underscores the need to not get too predi- 
cated on rites as reordering and instrumental (ibid.: 257f.). He states that all rituals are 
about time and the passage of existence. This is well illustrated by Arnold van Gennep's 
(1960) three-stage model of rituals (separation, marginality or liminality, and aggrega- 
tion) which Victor Turner (1974) then gave more of a social interpretation. The lat- 
ter argued that ritual could generate 'communitas' (the realm of anti-structure and the 
leveling of differences), allowing people to overcome uncertainty and ambiguity at the 
key transitional moments in their lives. Turner's work remains very popular with reli- 
gion scholars because of its attention to indigenous cultural notions, notably Ndembu 
symbolism and ritual, and broader humanist concerns (Gellner 1999: 30). 

Current scholarship on ritual evidences the shift in focus from structure to agency, 
and the influence of practice theory. Catherine Bell prefers the term 'ritualization' 
over a more objectified notion of ritual, viewing it as 'a matter of variously culturally 
specific strategies for setting some activities off from others, for creating and privi- 
leging a qualitative distinction between the 'sacred' and the 'profane,' and for ascribing 
such distinctions to realities thought to transcend the powers of human actors' (Bell 
1992: 74). Thomas Csordas' analysis of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal movement 
serves as a fine example of the imaginative and complex ways in which ritual life can 
be interpreted (Csordas 1997). 

From meaning to power 

The emphasis on religion as a social institution by earlier anthropologists, notably 
of the British school, was given a new orientation in the 1970s by the American 
anthropologist, Clifford Geertz, in an influential essay entitled, 'Religion as a Cultural 
System' (Geertz 1973). Michael Lambek characterizes Geertz as 'the major exponent 
of a Weber-inspired interpretive anthropology which attempts to understand religion 
within a broadly cultural/symbolic domain, but also with reference to public circum- 
stances in all their messiness' (Lambek 2002: 61). Geertz is well known for his 
advocacy of the need for 'thick description,' that is, interpretation of 'natives" own 
interpretations of events, based on the anthropologist's empirical knowledge. As 
noted by David Gellner (1999: 20), this change marked the move from 'etic' (looking 
at cultures from the outside and in the light of broader principles) to 'emic' (viewing 
cultures from the inside and in terms of their own categories) approaches. 

148 Key approaches to the study of religions 

An important counterpoint to Geertz's interpretivist approach is the work of Talal 
Asad, notably in his piece, 'The Construction of Religion as an Anthropological 
Category' (1993: 27-54)- In this trenchant critique of essentialist definitions of reli- 
gion, he claims that 'there cannot be a universal definition of religion, not only 
because its constituent elements and relationships are historically specific, but because 
that definition is itself the historical product of discursive processes' (ibid.: 29). To 
insist that religion has an autonomous essence, and is conceptually separate from the 
domain of power, is, he argues, a modern Western norm generated by post- 
Reformation history. This account, Lambek states, is 'indicative of a shift away from 
a symbolic anthropology toward a poststructuralist one that is more centrally 
concerned with power and discipline and with the way that religious subjects (i.e. 
practitioners) are formed' (Lambek 2002: 114). It also reflects efforts to contextu- 
alize ethnographic knowledge, notably in terms of the various colonial settings in 
which such knowledge was generated. 

Historicizing and problematizing 

Similar concerns to problematize and locate dominant anthropological concepts are 
found in the historical anthropology of Jean Comaroff and John Comaroff. For 
example, in their edited volume on Modernity and its Malcontents, they state deci- 
sively at the outset that the concept of modernity 'is profoundly ideological and 
profoundly historical' (Comaroff and Comaroff 1993: xi). As with much of their 
influential output, they tie their theoretical strengths into exciting empirical explor- 
ations that relate to the subject matter of 'religion' — generally situated in colonial 
and/or post-colonial Africa (Comaroff and Comaroff 1991, 1992). The authors in 
the volume on modernity, all former students of the Comaroffs, share a common 

that tries to dissolve the division between synchrony and diachrony, ethnog- 
raphy and historiography; that refuses to separate culture from political economy, 
insisting instead on the simultaneity of the meaningful and the material in all 
things; that acknowledges — no, stresses — the brute realities of colonialism and 
its aftermath, without assuming that they have robbed African peoples of their 
capacity to act on the world. 

(ibid.: xiv) 

Their 'analytic gaze' is turned upon the role of ritual in African modernity/moder- 
nities. It yields some excellent studies of the persistence, even efflorescence, of 
occultism, magic, and witchcraft in late twentieth-century African communities, as 
paradoxical consequences of 'modernity' and 'development' (ibid.). For example, 
based on her field studies of reports about witchcraft and other supernatural activi- 
ties in the popular press in Onitsha, a large Igbo-speaking market town in 
south-eastern Nigeria, Misty Bastian argues that witchcraft is not seen as solely associ- 
ated with the 'traditional' or the 'village' (Bastian 1993). In fact, it may even gain 
new power and meanings from the urban context, as it constitutes a useful medium 
for making sense of the complexity of West African life experiences (cf. Meyer 1999 
on Ghana). Anthropologists have long believed that one of the most distinguishing 

Anthropology of religion 149 

characteristics of a society is the way that it deals with affliction and suffering. 
Witchcraft beliefs and practices offer a particularly illuminating window onto such 
existential questions. Building on, as well as contesting, the earlier analytical foun- 
dations laid by Evans- Pritchard (1937), and I. M. Lewis (1986), recent scholarship 
has generated some insightful analyses of the ways in which ideas about occult prac- 
tice inform contemporary African social, political, and religious life (for example, 
Geschiere 1997; Bongmba 2001; Niehaus 2001; Ciekawy 1998; Hackett 2003). 

The rethinking of the traditional/modern dichotomy in anthropological research 
is linked to the renewed appreciation for the historical dimension. Johannes Fabian 
argues that suppressing temporality allows investigators to ignore the fact that the 
people they study are actually living in the same time period as they are (1983). 
Contemporary anthropologists tend to be more interested in how various populations 
and interest groups use their images of the past to constitute or strengthen present 
interests, and also how far those who study such groups are themselves implicated 
in such processes. Herzfeld reminds us, in no uncertain terms, that '[t]he idea that 
we somehow stand outside our object of study is preposterous' (Herzfeld 2001: 55, 
emphasis added). The adjudication of the accuracy of historical accounts is controlled 
by the powerful, whose own 'literal' records need also to be read as 'interpretational 
devices' (ibid., 62). 

The reproduction of the past, or its suppression, through social and ritual perform- 
ance, allows people to come to terms with 'a discomfiting present' (Herzfeld 2001: 
58). In her illuminating and multi-layered work on West African slavery (which 
Herzfeld alludes to), Rosalind Shaw describes how ritual practices, namely divina- 
tion, and images of pernicious occult powers, may be understood as 'memories of 
temporally removed processes created by an Atlantic commercial system that spanned 
three continents' (2002: 3). Interestingly, Shaw notes that, while divinatory skills 
lost favor in the light of the hegemony of a twentieth-century Western education, 
they enjoyed renewed salience with the catastrophic failure of Sierra Leone's economy 
and infrastructure during the 1980s and 1990s, and the emergence and entrench- 
ment of the rebel war. She shows how mnemonic stories of European cannibalism 
under colonialism and present-day popular stories of 'big persons,' namely national 
politicians and top civil servants, rumored to have gained their prestige through evil 
ritual practices prescribed by diviners, serve as social critiques. These stories draw on 
colonial and pre-colonial memories of power and its abuses. It is noteworthy that 
the memories of suffering and exploitation detailed in her study are condensed and 
expressed via ritual means, as well as highly charged sacred objects and locations. 
Stephan Palmie's riveting study of Afro-Cuban religious culture also discloses how 
local forms of moral imagination constitute a response to the violent slave-trading 
past, rivaling Western understandings of modernity and rationality (2002). 

Experience and experiencing 

As with many other disciplines in the human sciences, anthropology experienced a 
'crisis of representation' and the 'postmodern turn' in the 1980s and 1990s. In the 
wake of this critique, authors tend to be more transparent about their field experi- 
ences, even life trajectories. This is more than understanding positionality — 
frequently theoretical exploration is involved in trying to factor in the voices, or 

150 Key approaches to the study of religions 

better still, knowledge, of women and indigenous peoples, or negotiate a balance 
between subjectivism and objectivism, for instance. 4 Research on religion appears to 
compound these ethical and epistemological issues, yet such methodological reflec- 
tion by scholars of religion has been less forthcoming (see, however, Spickard, 
Landres, and McGuire 2002; Dempsey 2000). 

As an anthropologist with comparative religion and philosophy strings to his bow, 
Michael Jackson has been exemplary on this question of reflexivity. In his much- 
praised book Paths Toward a Clearing (1989), he reflects on 'the presumed coevalness 
that permits an ethnographer to have an understanding of the people he or she lives 
with and the images of radical otherness that pervade much anthropological writing' 
(ibid.: x). Drawing on his skills as novelist and poet, and on theoretical ideas from 
the existentialist and pragmatist traditions, Jackson focuses on experiences which are 
shared by both ethnographers and the people they study. He sets out to probe the 
dialectic at the heart of the anthropological project, namely the tensions between 
the search for universal cultural patterns and the empirical diversity of social life. 
He does this in the context of his experiences both among the Kuranko of Sierra 
Leone, and the Walpiri of Central Australia (Jackson 1995). 

In the course of twelve years of intensive research and collaboration with a Haitian 
Vodou priestess and her family in Brooklyn, Karen McCarthy Brown felt the need 
for more integrity, honesty, as well as imagination in her work (Brown 1991). Coming 
to the conclusion that fieldwork was more of a 'social art' than a social science, she 
wove fictional and autobiographical threads into the overall ethnographical analysis. 5 
Similarly, Sam Gill, a professor of religious studies known for his work on the reli- 
gions of indigenous peoples, develops 'storytracking' as an approach which allows 
him to trace the 'colonialist underbelly' of academic accounts of the Arrente, a 
Central Australian people, as well as to examine critically his own life and the chal- 
lenge of living 'responsibly and decisively in a postmodern world' (Gill 1998). 6 

The anthropological study of experience and its inter-subjective expressions was 
seen by Victor W. Turner as a way of revitalizing a field that had become stultified 
by structural-functional orthodoxy. He drew inspiration for this new hermeneutical 
and humanistic direction from the German philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey. In The 
Anthropology of Experience, edited by Turner and Edward M. Bruner (but which 
appeared after Turner's death in 1983), several leading scholars discuss the intersec- 
tions and disjunctures between life as lived, life as experienced, and life as told (V. 
W. Turner and Bruner 1986; see, also, E. Turner 1985). Drawing on their own ethno- 
graphic experiences, they document and analyze the symbolic manifestations and 
processual activities that are the 'structured units of experience,' such as the enact- 
ment of rituals, manipulation of images, performance of drama, or recitation of texts. 

Experience is arguably central to the rich body of literature on spirit possession 
and shamanism. These staple topics of the field have generated a variety of cross- 
cultural and multi-perspectival accounts. 7 Paul Stoller's own experiences of sorcery 
and possession among the Songhay of Niger inform his body of writings (Stoller 
1995, 1997). He is particularly attentive to the neglected senses (smell, taste, and 
touch) in Western anthropology (Stoller 1989, 1997), as is Constance Classen, who 
calls for a 'sensory anthropology' (Classen 1993). In fact, it could be argued that all 
issues of importance to a culture, including religious beliefs and practices, are infused 
with sensory values, while not forgetting that these same values may be used to 

Anthropology of religion 151 

express and reinforce divisions and hierarchies pertaining to race, gender and reli- 
gion (Herzfeld 2001: 252-253). Dutch anthropologists Rijk van Dijk and Peter Pels 
underscore the need to deconstruct the 'politics of perception' at play in the rela- 
tionship between anthropologist and interlocutor(s) (Dijk and Pels 1996). This lies 
behind the Western privileging of natural over supernatural, or observation over 
occultism or secrecy, rather than any given 'objectivity.' In fact, they provocatively, 
yet persuasively, claim that 'the anthropological study of religion tends to reflect, 
more than any other anthropological topic, the preconceptions of the Western 
observer' (ibid.: 247). This is probably the reason, they suggest, why so little has 
been written (except autobiographically) about fieldwork on religion. 

Focusing more on the experiences of those who are petitioners and practitioners, 
Adeline Masquelier explores the 'ritual economy' of bori spirit possession cults (albeit 
a small minority) in the town of Dogondoutchi in south-western Niger, as they 
contest the rapidly growing Muslim community which has taken control of the trade 
networks and village affairs (Masquelier 2001). She demonstrates how bori allows 
people to remember an idealized past as to articulate and negotiate the problems of 
contemporary life: 'to transform the experience of novel, ambiguous, or threatening 
realities into symbols of a shared consciousness' (ibid., 10—11). Masquelier, in 
searching for the appropriate interpretive lens for her case study, provides a helpful 
overview of the rich literature on spirit possession (Masquelier 2001: 11—31; see, also, 
Boddy 1994). She rejects those approaches which explain possession in pathological, 
biological, or functionalist terms, as in I. M. Lewis's well-known claim that both 
spirit possession and shamanism must be studied as social phenomena primarily to 
do with power and marginality (Lewis 1989). Masquelier opts instead for an approach 
which does justice to the therapeutic and performative aspects of possession, and 
which analyzes both its 'cultural logic' and wider historical and political contexts. 

Engendering and embodying the field 

At the outset of her much-cited work Feminism and Anthropology, Henrietta Moore 
stresses that '[t]he basis for the feminist critique is not the study of women, but the 
analysis of gender relations, and of gender as a structuring principle in all human 
societies' (1988: vii). For example, she looks at the relation between pollution beliefs 
and sexual antagonism in Melanesian societies (ibid.: 16—21). Susan Sered articu- 
lates well why anthropologists cannot ignore the role of religion in this and other 
areas of social life, '[t]he 'natural' and the 'supernatural' serve as complementary tools 
for naturalizing and sanctifying difference, prestige, and hierarchy' notably in regard 
to questions of gender (1999: 9). In some societies, the ritual context provides for 
much greater fluidity and reversal of gender roles (Sered 1999: 231-245). 

'Mutually toxic' is the way Rosalind Shaw described the relationship between femi- 
nism and mainstream religious studies (in the early 1990s) (Shaw 1995). She saw a 
collision between the 'view from below,' contextual approach of feminist anthro- 
pology, and the 'view from above,' sui generis tradition of religious studies, with its 
privileging of texts and beliefs. However, Fiona Bowie argues that it is both possible 
and productive to accommodate the contested (Western origins, pro-women) and 
contesting (critical, deconstructive) nature of feminism in the study of religion (Bowie 
2000: 91-118). 

152 Key approaches to the study of religions 

One of the positive offshoots of the feminist impulse in anthropological scholar- 
ship has been a heightened attention to the social and cultural significance of the 
body (Lock 1997). Earlier social scientists, such as Durkheim, were interested in the 
relationship between the physical, social, and psycho-social domains. Mary Douglas 
stimulated an appreciation of the body for its symbolic properties (Douglas 1970). 
Michael Lambek and Andrew Stathern, in their inter-regional study of the relations 
between persons and bodies in Africa and Melanesia, attribute the heightened interest 
in the body to its 'increased visibility and objectification within late capitalist 
consumer society,' as well to shifts in academic focus to the domain of lived experi- 
ence and the effects of the social realm on the body, to the body as signifier, and 
to mind/body holistic issues (Lambek and Strathern 1998: 5). So, as they rightly 
suggest, the body constitutes a type of centripetal concept around which current 
academic interests can be organized. They underscore the significance of embodi- 
ment as the model (supported by current scientific findings in brain/body studies) for 
discussing the interactions of body and mind, notably in the context of illness and 

Michael Jackson is critical of prevailing tendencies in anthropology to interpret 
embodied experience in terms of belief and language, and to treat the body as inert 
and passive (1989: 122). Reviewing his earlier analysis of Kuranko rituals of initiation, 
which was unduly abstract and intellectualist, he now holds that 'what is done with 
the body is the ground of what is thought and said' (1989: 131; cf. Moore 1996: 3-12, 
79—97). He also maintains that this focus on bodily praxis is more empathic and in 
line with indigenous interpretations, rather than being dependent on external experts 
in symbolic analysis. Jackson also shows how the use of bodily imagery enables the 
Kuranko (and others) 'to place self and world on the same scale,' and to act in the 
belief that 'mastery of the universe is reciprocally linked to mastery of self (ibid., 155). 

Some studies highlight the intersections between the body, religious symbols, and 
political and economic power. Jean Comaroff shows how Zionist Christians in South 
Africa appropriated symbols of power from the dress of colonialists and missionaries, 
transforming these into messages of dissent and self-empowerment (Comaroff 1985). 
Two new edited collections (Arthur 1999; Arthur 2000) provide a fascinating range 
of examples of how religious dress may be used, especially in the case of women, to 
negotiate new social environments, or to control sexuality and social behavior. 

Closely tied to studies of the body are studies of illness and healing from a range 
of different perspectives (see Csordas 2002). Rene Devisch's detailed analysis of a 
healing cult, mbwoolu, among the Yaka of Congo (formerly Zaire) demonstrates how, 
through the use of liturgy and figurines, an ill person is ritually induced to die in his 
former condition and be reborn into a new one (Devisch 1998). The imaginary, 
transgressive, and intimate qualities of this esoteric trance-possession cult differ from 
the more public, daytime ceremonies of initiation. Bruce Kapferer's impressive study 
of Sinhalese exorcism rituals in Sri Lanka stresses the critical importance of perform- 
ance and ceremony (Kapferer 1991 [1983]). Some studies address the impact of 
exogenous forces. For example, Stacey Pigg's original, multi-level analysis of local 
theories of sickness and healing practices in Nepal weaves in the role of the state 
and international development agencies (Pigg 1996). 

In a lucid theoretical piece, 'Body and Mind in Mind, Body and Mind in Body' 
(1998), Michael Lambek stresses that it is important not to view the mind-body 

Anthropology of religion 153 

relationship reductively or incommensurably, but as a 'central dialectic in the ongoing 
constitution of human culture, society, and experience (and hence of anthropological 
theory)' (ibid., 120). The celebration of the body, and the turn to practice theory, as 
useful as they have been in transcending problematic dichotomies, should not, he 
insists, lead us to forget that 'contemplative reason' is a fundamental characteristic of 
the human condition, regardless of time and place (ibid., p. 119). This assertion seems 
especially pertinent to the study of religious worlds, still haunted as they are by the 
specters of essentialism, reductionism, and Orientalism (unintended or otherwise). 

New moves and movements 

Because of the quest for holistic analysis, anthropologists have been drawn over the 
years to the study of small-scale societies. This is where they find what Peacock calls 
'the interrelatedness of meaning and life, culture and existence' (1986: 18). However, 
to downplay the exoticism and primitivism commonly associated with the work of 
Western anthropologists, and to address new social and cultural flows, many younger 
anthropologists have shifted their focus to new locations and phenomena. Some may 
still retain an interest in qualitative research on smaller, popular groups of other soci- 
eties (as opposed to sociology's more traditional emphasis on the quantitative analysis 
of [our own] large-scale societies), but they are increasingly attuned to the national 
and global forces which shape communal identity and survival. Diaspora, travel, 
tourism, and transnationalism are now on the agenda, reflecting the fluid, multi-sited 
nature of contemporary anthropology (Vertovec 2000; Johnson 2002a; Tsing 1993). 
Syncretism and fetishism have also been experiencing a revival of interest in the 
post-colonial world of hybridized and creolized cultures (Shaw and Stewart 1994; 
Apter and Pietz 1993). 

The rich body of work now emerging on global Pentecostalism and its local 
manifestations, for example, illustrates these new trends exceptionally well (Corten 
and Marshall-Fratani 2001; Harding 2000; Coleman 2000; Meyer 1999), building 
on earlier work on religious change and innovation (e.g. MacGaffey 1983). 
Evangelicalism and (Christian) fundamentalism have also been subject to anthro- 
pological analysis (DeBernardi 1999; Nagata 2001), and there is ongoing interest in 
missionary activities, and the problematic of conversion and cultural translation (Veer 
1996). Joel Robbins has been instrumental in formulating an anthropology of 
Christianity (Robbins 2003). There is no shortage of works on Islam in a host of 
different contexts, whether in the public spheres of the Middle East (Eickelman and 
Salvatore 2002), Indonesia (Hefner 2000; Bowen 2003), Egypt (Starrett 2003), or 
Mali (Soares 2004). Anthropologists have also ventured into the worlds of neo- 
pagan/Wicca (Luhrmann 1989) and new age religions (Brown 1997), while Talal 
Asad has recently called for an anthropology of the secular (2003). Some have turned 
to cognitive anthropology for naturalistic explanations about religion (see, e.g. 
Whitehouse and Laidlaw 2004). 

Material and media cultures 

One of the most significant new areas in the anthropological study of religion is that 
of the visual and performing arts (Hackett 1996; Coote and Shelton 1994). 8 Theorists 

154 Key approaches to the study of religions 

in this field have done much to problematize the concept of 'primitive.' An early land- 
mark text, linking ritual and cosmology to art and architectonics, was James Fernandez's 
dense study of a Central African religious movement, Bwiti (Fernandez 1982). This has 
been followed by other scholars who have explored the relationship between the 
materiality and spirituality of place (see, e.g. Low and Lawrence-Zuniga 2003). 

The French anthropologists who conducted extensive research on the Dogon of 
Mali were also attentive to the intersections of their elaborate masking and cosmo- 
logical traditions (Griaule 1938). Greater attention to material and performance 
culture elucidates hidden cosmological and philosophical meanings (see, e.g. Abiodun 
1994), although much more needs to be done on music and dance. Studies on secrecy 
(Nooter 1993) and on divination (Pemberton III 2000) illustrate this well. In fact, 
the findings have served to challenge prevailing Western understandings of power 
and aesthetics, for in some African art forms the least visible and least attractive art 
works may be the most spiritually charged. The magnificent study, A Saint in the City 
(and museum exhibition), of the urban arts associated with Sheikh Amadou Bamba, 
the Senegalese Sufi mystic, illustrates the devotional power of his sacred images for 
members of the Mouride order the world over (Roberts et al. 2003 ). 9 Ways of the 
Rivers is a stunning example of the intersections of art, religion, and the environment 
in the Niger Delta (Anderson and Peek 2002). 10 

Analyzing the growing interest in Australian Aboriginal visual culture, Fred Myers 
and Howard Morphy reveal how contemporary Australian Aboriginal spirituality is 
(re)constructed in the commodification of contemporary Aboriginal paintings (Myers 
2002; Morphy 1992). These and other studies consider the how indigenous art works 
circulate transculturally due to the art and tourist trades, and museum exhibitions, 
and how this affects their (original) ritual meanings and use, and present-day artistic 

An exciting new area of investigation for anthropologists in general, and espe- 
cially for those who focus on religion — notably the newer and/or minority movements 
seeking recognition and expansion — is the burgeoning mass media sector. Long absent 
from the purview of mainstream anthropology because of their perceived hegemonic 
and homogenizing tendencies, the media, particularly local and indigenous forms, are 
now the subject of conferences and publications (Ginsberg, Abu-Lughod, and Larkin 
2002; Herzfeld 2001: 294-315). An important new volume assembles the work of 
several scholars who are engaged on the intersections of religion and media in a 
variety of locations (Meyer and Moors 2005 ). u It is in the area of audience recep- 
tion, practice, and agency that anthropologists, with their professed interest in 
everyday experience, can make their contribution to media studies (Herzfeld 2001: 
17, 302f.). Comparative scholarship on Islam and the media is particularly well 
developed both substantively and theoretically (Anderson 2003). 

Perduring and maturing debates 

The changes in focus and content, adumbrated above, serve to raise old and new 
questions about the conscience of present-day anthropologists, and their purpose in 
a world plagued by conflict and injustice. The first of these perduring concerns is 
epistemological, in that it problematizes the relations of power and authority (both at 
the empirical and representational level) between anthropologist and the 'other' 

Anthropology of religion 155 

(Moore 1999: 5) Herzfeld opts for a methodological stance of 'principled modesty' 
(2001: 67) and 'reflexive comparativism' (ibid.: 65), both of which keep the core 
issue of sameness and difference in creative tension, obviating any lapse into reduc- 
tive or hegemonic interpretations. Armin Geertz believes that ethnographically 
oriented scholars of religion should not capitulate to those voices who privilege 
insider authority, knowledge, and cultural competence. He opts for a dialogical rela- 
tionship between scholar and consultant, which he terms 'ethnohermeneutics' (2003). 

The critical insights of cultural anthropologists on these ethical and methodolog- 
ical questions should give pause for reflection, and perhaps, encouragement, to all 
those who engage in ethnographic work on religion. In his appropriately titled 
Anthropology with an Attitude (2001), Johannes Fabian expresses his frustration that 
his anthropologist colleagues seem more preoccupied with how they represent their 
data than with how they obtain it. He acknowledges that the application of 
hermeneutics and literary criticism to anthropology has produced valuable critical 
insights, but finds that texts, as produced by the ethnographer as records of verbal 
interaction in the field, have generated false assurances of objectivity. He would like 
to see more emphasis on how cultural knowledge is imparted through performance 
and action, rather than as discursive information. He is critical of the privileging of 
concepts and images derived from vision, namely, participant observation, in the 
production of 'objective' ethnographic knowledge. A more materialist, and inter- 
subjective approach in fieldwork can, in his estimation, erase the hierarchy between 
knower and known. 

In his inimitably provocative way, Fabian also asks why 'ecstasis,' should not be 
included in our theories of knowledge. By this he means (and this links to the section 
on experience above) ecstatic initiation rituals, hallucinogens, alcohol, exhausting 
dances, and all-night vigils and wakes. 12 For that matter, he adds, there should be 
room for 'passion,' or referring to Michael Taussig's work on shamanism and colo- 
nialism in Bolivia (1987), 'terror' or 'torture.' For how, Fabian asks, 'can we hope to 
deal objectively with peoples and cultures whom Western imperialism made the 
subjects of brutal domination as well as of ethnographic inquiry?' (Fabian 2001: 32). 
Kirsten Hastrup, who is equally concerned with issues of discrimination and tolera- 
tion (Hastrup and Ulrich 2001), argues in favor of the use of the 'ethnographic 
present' to go beyond the dichotomy of subjectivism and objectivism (Hastrup 1995: 
9—25). She believes that it can convey both the creativity and inter-subjectivity of 
the fieldwork process and the written, more theoretical presenting of the ethnography, 
and their mutual imbrications. 

The second ongoing area of debate is more teleological in that it addresses the 
purpose and outcomes of anthropological research. This is more than just applied 
anthropology, argues Henrietta Moore, it relates to the 'reconfiguration of the bound- 
aries between academic and non-academic practice' and the recognition that 
anthropology is a disciplinary project which is part of 'the practice of governmen- 
tality' (1999: 3). In other words, there can be no more retreating into cultural 
relativism. Anthropologists still have to engage with theories that treat the common- 
alities, and not just the differences, between all human beings (ibid.: 17). 

Michael Jackson is concerned to find 'ways of opening up dialogue between people 
from different cultures or traditions, ways of bringing into being modes of understanding 
which effectively go beyond the intellectual conventions and political ideologies that 

156 Key approaches to the study of religions 

circumscribe us all' (1989: x [author's emphasis]; cf. van Binsbergen 2003). Similarly, 
Michael Herzfeld believes that 'history from below,' i.e. detailed ethnography or thick 
description, can offer 'daily challenges to the dominance of certain political struc- 
tures' (and, we should add, religious structures) (2001: 75). Faye Harrison and her 
contributors to Decolonizing Anthropology are even more proactive in exploring how, 
as 'organic intellectuals,' they can contribute toward 'social transformation and human 
liberation' (Harrison 1991). 

Some scholars are translating their concerns regarding ethics and pragmatics into 
new arenas or objects of interrogation, such as development, discrimination, or 
violence and conflict. It is well known that anthropologists have served in an advi- 
sory capacity to governments, and development and humanitarian organizations. 
Some are now reviewing this practice, and analyzing these institutions, occasionally 
with a focus on religious agencies (see, e.g. Bornstein 2002). However, only two of 
these emergent areas can be highlighted here, namely violence and conflict, and 
human rights. 

There is no shortage of texts these days on the ethnography and theory of violence 
and suffering (Das et al. 2001; Herzfeld 2001: 217-239; Tambiah 1996). In Cynthia 
Mahmood's estimation, the new interest of anthropologists in war and peace is gener- 
ating 'a much richer understanding of how human beings experience violence' 
(Mahmood 2003). The area of conflict resolution has been particularly open to 
insights on culture. Clearly, the context of war and conflict compels the fieldworker 
to consider most carefully methods of communication, knowledge production, and 
representation. Such extreme contexts also tend to subvert conventional concepts 
and categories. For example, Swedish anthropologist Sverker Finnstrom, seeking to 
investigate the cultural practices whereby people in Northern Uganda both engage 
and try to comprehend existentially the realities of war and violence, and also struggle 
continuously to build hope for the future, opted for 'participant reflection' over 
'participant observation' to reflect his more engaged relationship with his informants 
(Finnstrom 2003). Carolyn Nordstrom's groundbreaking work on war-torn regions 
and the strategies people adopt to (re)generate meaning and community in situa- 
tions of extreme suffering is apposite here (Nordstrom 1997). Marc Sommers, an 
anthropologist who works on Rwandan and Burundian refugee communities in 
Tanzania, states revealingly, '[p]erhaps no aspect of African refugee society and culture 
is as overlooked by researchers and most humanitarian relief agencies as their reli- 
gious lives' (Sommers 2000: 18). Indeed, this aspect is often under-analyzed in 
otherwise praiseworthy works on social suffering (Das et al. 2001). However, in studies 
of indigenous peoples the religious or spiritual dimension may be more apparent 
(Adelson 2001). 

Now that human rights constitute the new global lingua franca for victims of injus- 
tice and oppression the world over, anthropologists are having to overcome their 
relativist leanings and respond to the call to 'anthropologize' and 'historicize' human 
rights (Booth 1999). This may invoke, wittingly or unwittingly, religious uses and 
interpretations of the human rights idea. Several European scholars have indeed set 
out in a recent volume, Culture and Rights: Anthropological Perspectives, to develop 
more 'empirical, contextual analyses of specific rights struggles' (Cowan, Dembour, 
and Wilson 2001: 21). They rightly argue that such an intellectual strategy permits 
them 'to follow how individuals, groups, communities and states use a discourse of 

Anthropology of religion 157 

rights in the pursuit of particular ends, and how they become enmeshed in its logic' 
Empirical studies also raise important questions about who subscribes to and who 
benefits from this or that version of culture, community, or tradition — all of which 
can have significant ethical and legal consequences. Minority religious and ethnic 
groups continue to serve as the interface for the increasingly legalized and politicized 
battles over cultural identity and survival (Barry 2001; Nye 2001; see, Hussain and 
Ghosh 2002 on postcolonial situations in South Asia). More research is needed to 
understand the ways in which the human rights concept is generating new discourses 
of sameness and difference among religious groups. In other words, against the back- 
drop of rights culture, identity politics, and the logic of the market, religious 
formations are more differentiated, yet in another vein, also more standardized, in 
ever more competitive public spheres (Hackett 2005 ). 13 Moreover, the current 
anthropological emphasis on practice is needed to compensate for the Western 
propensity for 'belief in interpreting religious freedom issues, and to mediate rights 
conflict, such as between women's rights and religious rights. 


Current scholarship in the anthropology of religion is undoubtedly still indebted 
to those early monographs and frameworks developed by the likes of Sir Edward 
Evans-Pritchard, Emile Durkheim, Mary Douglas, and Clifford Geertz. However, the 
postmodern and postcolonial turns, compressions of time and space with globaliza- 
tion, and rise of 'multiculturalist' issues, have occasioned some significant rethinking 
and realignment. Determining the general provenance or parameters of religion in 
'exotic' small-scale societies has ceased to preoccupy contemporary anthropologists. 
Some now see their contribution as being rather to reconsider modern, secular society 
as symbolically and culturally constituted, and as much based on the religious impulse 
as on reason. 

Arguably, then, the increasingly composite nature of anthropological theorizing 
bodes well for more creative and critical explorations of religious expression, prac- 
tice, and transformation in a variety of contemporary locations. Current notions of 
(anthropological) theory as emphasizing the salience of holism, context, practice, 
and relations of power, and incorporating 'a critique of its own locations, positions 
and interests' (Moore 1999: 9-10), are clearly invaluable for the academic study of 
religion more generally. This 'critically productive discomfort' at the heart of the 
anthropological enterprise - to end with another wonderful turn of phrase from 
Michael Herzfeld - 'removes anthropology from the role of referee in a game of truth 
in which there are no winners' (2001: 88). In sum, as stated at the outset, anthro- 
pological theory and method appear increasingly well positioned to respond to such 
pressing social and cultural issues as identity, difference, conflict, and livelihood as 
they are mediated by religion(s) in our globalizing world. 


1 The Society for the Anthropology of Religion was formally created in the American 
Anthropological Association in 2000 ( Shortly after that, an 
Anthropology of Religion Consultation was inaugurated in the American Academy of 

158 Key approaches to the study of religions 

2 It may also derive from personal 'stock-taking' by individual authors at the conclusion 
of their careers, and their concern to transcend latent interpretations of religion as irra- 
tional, as Sarah Caldwell indicates in her insightful review of five major publications in 
the 1990s (Caldwell 1999). 

3 For historical surveys of the field, see Bennett 1996; Morris 1987, and for accessible recent 
textbooks, see Bowie 2000; Klass 1995; Klass and Weisgrau 1999, and for readers, see 
Glazier 1999; Glazier and Flowerday 2003; Lambek 2002; Hackett 2001. 

4 See, also, the various essays on their field experiences by religion scholars in a special 
issue of Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 13,1 (2001). 

5 Cf. my own reflections on the limitations of my early training in the academic study of 
religion for conducting field-based research on religion in Nigeria (Hackett 2001). 

6 Cf. Robert M. Baum's piece on the ethical considerations of doing fieldwork on a seces- 
sionist religious movement in the context of a religiously intolerant state (Baum 2001). 

7 For helpful overviews of shamanism and neo-shamanism, see (Vitebsky 1995; Johnson 
1995) and (van Binsbergen 1991). 

8 African Arts, published quarterly for academics and the market, is a rich indication of 
the current vitality and diversity of the field. 

9 (accessed June 23, 2004). 

10 The cross-cultural study of religion and nature will receive a major boost from Bron 
Taylor's and Jeffrey Kaplan's Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature project (New York: 
Cassell, 2005) (accessed June 23, 2004). 

11 The Journal ofReligion inAfrica has two thematic issues on media (26,4: 1998) (33,2: 2003). 

12 See, in this regard, the work of anthropologist/sangoma (diviner-healer), Wim van 
Binsbergen (van Binsbergen 1991) 

13 See the guest edited issue of Culture and Religion on 'Law and Human Rights,' edited by 
Rosalind I. J. Hackett and Winnifred F. Sullivan (6,1: 2005). 


Abiodun, Rowland. 1994. 'Ase: Verbalizing and Visualizing Creative Power through Art.' 

Journal of Religion in Africa 24 (4): 294-322. 
Adelson, Naomi. 2001. 'Reimagining Aboriginality: An Indigenous People's Response to 

Social Suffering.' In Remaking a World: Violence, Social Suffering, and Recovery, edited by V. 

Das, A. Kleinman, M. Lock, M. Ramphele, and P. Reynolds. Berkeley and Los Angeles: 

University of California Press. 
Anderson, Jon W. 2003. 'New Media, New Publics: Reconfiguring the Public Sphere of Islam.' 

Social Research 70 (3): 887-906. 
Anderson, Martha G., and Philip M. Peek, eds. 2002. Ways of the Rivers: Arts and Environment 

of the Niger Delta. Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History. 
Apter, Emily, and William Pietz. 1993. Fetishism as Cultural Discourse. Ithaca, NY: Cornell 

University Press. 
Arthur, Linda Boynton, ed. 1999. Religion, Dress and the Body. Oxford: Berg. 

2000. Undressing Religion: Commitment and Conversion from a Cross-Cultural Perspective. 

Oxford: Berg. 

Asad, Talal. 1993. Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and 
Islam. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press. 

2003. Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity. Stanford: Stanford Uni- 
versity Press. 

Barry, Brian. 2001. Culture and Equality: An Egalitarian Critique of Multiculturalism. Cambridge, 
MA: Harvard University Press. 

Bastian, Misty. 1993. '"Bloodhounds Who Have No Friends": Witchcraft and Locality in the 
Nigerian Popular Press.' In Modernity and its Malcontents: Ritual and Power in Postcolonial 
Africa, edited by J. Comaroff and J. Comaroff. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 

Anthropology of religion 159 

Baum, Robert M. 2001. 'The Ethics of Religious Studies Research in the Context of the 

Religious Intolerance of the State: An Africanist Perspective.' Method and Theory in the 

Study of Religion 13 (1): 12-23. 
Bell, Catherine. 1992. Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice. New York: Oxford University Press. 
Bennett, Clinton. 1996. In Search of the Sacred: Anthropology and the Study of Religions. London: 

Boddy, Janice. 1994. 'Spirit Possession Revisited: Beyond Instrumentality.' Annual Review of 

Anthropology 24: 407-434. 
Bongmba, Elias Kifon. 2001. African Witchcraft and Otherness: A Philosophical and Theological 

Critique of lntersubjective Relations. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. 
Booth, Ken. 1999. 'Three Tyrannies.' In Human Rights in Global Politics, edited by T. Dunne 

and N. J. Wheeler. New York: Cambridge University Press. 
Bornstein, Erica. 2002. 'Developing Faith: Theologies of Economic Development in 

Zimbabwe.' journal of Religion in Africa 32 (1): 4-31. 
Bowen, John Richard. 2003. Islam, Law, and Equality in Indonesia: An Anthropology of Public 

Reasoning. New York: Cambridge University Press. 
Bowie, Fiona. 2000. The Anthropology of Religion. Oxford: Blackwell. 
Brown, Karen McCarthy. 1991. Mama. Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn. Berkeley: University 

of California Press. 
Brown, Michael F. 1997. The Channeling Zone: American Spirituality in an Anxious Age. 

Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 
Caldwell, Sarah. 1999. 'Transcendence and Culture: Anthropologists Theorize Religion.' 

Religious Studies Review 25 (3): 227-232. 
Ciekawy, Diane. 1998. 'Witchcraft in Statecraft: Five Technologies of Power in Coastal 

Kenya.' African Studies Review 41:119-141. 
Classen, Constance. 1993. Worlds of Sense: Exploring the Senses in History and Across Cultures. 

New York: Routledge. 
Coleman, Simon. 2000. The Globalization of Charismatic Christianity. Cambridge: Cambridge 

University Press. 
Comaroff, Jean. 1985. Body of Power, Spirit of Resistance. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 
, and John L. Comaroff. 1991. Of Revelation and Revolution. Vol. 1. Christianity, 

Colonialism, and Consciousness in South Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 

1992. Ethnography and the Historical Imagination. Boulder, CO: Westview. 

eds. 1993. Modernity and Its Malcontents: Ritual and Power in Postcolonial Africa. Chicago: 

University of Chicago Press. 
Coote, Jeremy and Anthony Shelton, eds. 1994. Anthropology Art and Aesthetics, (Oxford 

Studies in the Anthropology of Cultural Forms). New York: Oxford University Press. 
Corten, Andre, and Ruth Marshall-Fratani, eds. 2001. Between Babel and Pentecost: 

Transnational Pentecostalism in Africa and Latin America. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University 

Cowan, Jane K, Marie-Benedicte Dembour, and Richard A. Wilson, eds. 2001. Culture and 

Rights: Anthropological Perspectives. New York: Cambridge University Press. 
Csordas, Thomas J. 1997. Language, Charisma, and Creativity: The Ritual Life of a Religious 

Movement. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. 
2002. Body /Meaning/Healing (Contemporary Anthropology of Religion). New York: Palgrave 

Das, Veena, Arthur Kleinman, Margaret Lock, Mamphela Ramphele, and Pamela Reynolds, 

eds. 2001. Remaking a World: Violence, Social Suffering, and Recovery. Berkeley and Los 

Angeles: University of California Press. 
DeBernardi, Jean. 1999. 'Spiritual Warfare and Territorial Spirits: The Globalization and 

Localization of a Practical Theology.' Religious Studies and Theology 18 (2): 66-96. 

160 Key approaches to the study of religions 

Dempsey, Corinne. 2000. 'Religion and Representation in Recent Ethnographies.' Religious 

Studies Review 26 (1):37 — 42. 
Devisch, Rene. 1998. 'Treating the Affect by Remodelling the Body in a Yaka Healing Cult.' 

In Bodies and Persons: Comparative Perspectives from Africa and Melanesia, edited by M. 

Lambek, and A. Strathern. New York: Cambridge University Press. 
Dijk, Rijk van, and Peter Pels. 1996. 'Contested Authorities and the Politics of Perception: 

Deconstructing the Study of Religion in Africa.' In Postcolonial Identities in Africa, edited 

by R. Werbner and T. Ranger. London and New Jersey: Zed Books. 
Douglas, Mary. 1970. Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology. New York: Pantheon Books 

(Random House). 

1975. Implicit Meanings. London: Routledge. 

Durkheim, Emile. 1965 [1912]. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. New York: The Free 

Eickelman, Dale F., and Armando Salvatore. 2002. 'The Public Sphere and Muslim Identities.' 

European journal of Sociology 43: 92-115. 
Evans-Pritchard, E. E. 1937. Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande. Oxford: 

Clarendon Press. 

1974 [1956]. Nue-Religion. New York: Oxford University Press. 

Fabian, Johannes. 1983. Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes its Object. New York: 

Columbia University Press. 

2001. Anthropology with an Attitude: Critical Essays. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 

Fernandez, James W. 1982. Bwiti: An Ethnography of the Religious Imagination in Africa. 

Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 
Finnstrom, Sverker. 2003. Living with Bad Surroundings: War and Existential Uncertainty in 

Acholiland, Northern Uganda. Vol. 35, Uppsala Studies in Cultural Anthropology. Uppsala: 

Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis. 
Frazer, James. 1996 [1890]. The Golden Bough. New York: Touchstone Books. 
Geertz, Armin. 2003. 'Ethnohermeneutics and Worldview Analysis in the Study of Hopi 

Indian Religion.' Numen 50 (3):308-348. 
Geertz, Clifford. 1973. 'Religion as a Cultural System.' In The Interpretation of Cultures, edited 

by C. Geertz. New York: Basic Books. 
Gellner, David N. 1999. Anthropological Approaches.' In Approaches to the Study of Religion, 

edited by P. Connolly. London: Cassell. 
Geschiere, Peter. 1997. The Modernity of Witchcraft: Politics and the Occult in Postcolonial Africa. 

Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia. 
Gill, Sam D. 1998. Storytracking: Texts, Stories, and Histories of Central Australia. New York: 

Oxford University Press. 
Ginsberg, Faye, Lila Abu-Lughod, and Brian Larkin, eds. 2002. Media Worlds: Anthropology 

on New Terrain. Los Angeles and Berkeley: University of California Press. 
Glazier, Stephen D., ed. 1999. Anthropology of Religion: A Handbook. New York: Praeger. 
, and Charles A. Flowerday, eds. 2003. Selected Readings in the Anthropology of Religion: 

Theoretical and Methodological Essays. New York: Praeger. 
Griaule, Marcel. 1938. Masques Dogons. Vol. 33. Paris: Universite de Paris, Travaux et 

Memoires de Hnstitut d'Ethnologie. 
Hackett, Rosalind I. J. 1996. Art and Religion in Africa. London: Cassell. 
2001. 'Field Envy: Or, the Perils and Pleasures of Doing Fieldwork.' Method and Theory 

in the Study of Religion 13 (1): 98-109. 

2003. 'Discourses of Demonisation in Africa.' Diogenes 50 (3): 61-75. 

2005. 'Mediated Religion in South Africa: Balancing Air-time and Rights Claims.' In 

Media, Religion and the Public Sphere, edited by B. Meyer, and A. Moors. Bloomington, IN: 
Indiana University Press. 
Harding, Susan. 2000. The Book of jerry Fallwell. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 

Anthropology of religion 161 

Harrison, Faye V., ed. 1991. Decolonizing Anthropology: Moving Further Toward an Anthropology 

for Liberation. Washington, DC: Association of Black Anthropologists/American Anthro- 
pological Association. 
Hastrup, Kirsten. 1995. A Passage to Anthropology. New York: Routledge. 
, and George Ulrich, eds. 2001. Discrimination and Toleration: New Perspectives, 

International Studies in Human Rights. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff. 
Hefner, Robert W. 2000. Civil Islam: Muslims and Democratization in Indonesia. Princeton, NJ: 

Princeton University Press. 
Herzfeld, Michael. 2001. Anthropology: Theoretical Practice in Culture and Society. Oxford: 

Heusch, Luc de. 1982. The Drunken King Or, the Origin of the State. Bloomington, IN: Indiana 

University Press. 
Horton, Robin. 1993. African Traditional Thought and Western Science.' In Patterns of 

Thought in Africa and the West: Essays on Magic, Religion and Science, edited by R. Horton. 

New York: Cambridge University Press. 
Hussain, Monirul, and Lipi Ghosh, eds. 2002. Religious Minorities in South Asia: Selected Essays 

on Post-Colonial Situations. New Delhi: Manak. 
Jackson, Michael. 1989. Paths Toward a Clearing: Radical Empiricism and Ethnographic Inquiry. 

Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. 

1995. At Home in the World. Raleigh, NC: Duke University Press. 

Johnson, Paul C. 1995. 'Shamanism from Ecuador to Chicago: A Case Study in New Age 
Ritual Appropriation.' Religion 25: 163-178. 

2002a. 'Migrating Bodies, Circulating Signs: Brazilian Candomble, the Garifuna of 

the Caribbean, and the Category of Indigenous Religions.' History of Religions 41 (4): 

2002b. Secrets, Gossip, and Gods: The Transformation of Brazilian Candomble. New York: 

Oxford University Press. 
Kapferer, Bruce. 1991 [1983]. A Celebration of Demons: Exorcism and the Aesthetics of Healing 

in Sri Lanka. 2nd edn. Providence, RI/ Washington, DC: Berg/Smithsonian Institution Press. 
Klass, Morton. 1995. Ordered Universes: Approaches to the Anthropology of Religion. Boulder, 

CO: Westview Press. 
, and Maxine K. Weisgrau, eds. 1999. Across the Boundaries of Belief. Boulder, CO: 

Westview Press. 
Lambek, Michael. 1993. Knowledge and Practice in Mayotte: Local Discourses of Islam, Sorcery, 

and Spirit Possession. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 

1998. 'Body and Mind in Mind, Body and Mind in Body: Some Anthropological 

Interventions in a Long Conversation.' In Bodies and Persons: Comparative Perspectives from 
Africa and Melanesia, edited by M. Lambek and A. Strathern. New York: Cambridge 
University Prss. 

ed. 2002. A Reader in the Anthropology of Religion. Maiden, MA: Blackwell. 

and Andrew Strathern, eds. 1998. Bodies and Persons: Comparative Perspectives from 

Africa and Melanesia. New York: Cambridge University Press. 
Lattas, Andrew. 1998. Cultures of Secrecy: Reinventing Race in Bush Kaliai Cargo Cults. Madison, 

WI: University of Wisconsin Press. 
Levi-Strauss, Claude. 1963. Structural Anthropology. New York: Basic Books. 
Lewis, I. M. 1976. Social Anthropology in Perspective. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, UK: Penguin. 

1986. Religion in Context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

1989. Ecstatic Religion. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge. 

Lock, Margaret. 1997. 'Cultivating the Body: Anthropology and Epistemologies of Bodily 

Practice and Knowledge.' Annual Review of Anthropology 22: 133-155. 
Low, Setha M., and Denise Lawrence-Zuniga, eds. 2003. The Anthropology of Space and Place: 

Locating Culture. New York: Blackwell. 

162 Key approaches to the study of religions 

Luhrmann, Teresa M. 1989. Persuasions of the Witch's Craft: Ritual Magic in Contemporary 

England. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 
MacGaffey, Wyatt. 1983. Modern Kongo Prophets: Religion in a Plural Society. Bloomington, 

IN: Indiana University Press. 
Mahmood, Cynthia Kepley. 2003. 'Agenda for an Anthropology of Peace.' Anthropology 

News: 8. 
Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1954 [1925]. Magic, Science and Religion and Other Essays. Garden 

City, NY: Doubleday. 
Masquelier, Adeline. 2001. 'Prayer Has Spoiled Everything': Possession, Power, and Identity in 

an Islamic Town of Niger. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 
Meyer, Birgit. 1999. Translating the Devil: Religion and Modernity among the Ewe in Ghana. 

Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. 
, and Annelies Moors, eds. 2005. Religion, Media, and the Public Sphere. Indiana: Indiana 

University Press. 
Moore, Henrietta. 1988. Feminism and Anthropology. London: Polity Press. 
1996. Space, Text, and Gender: An Anthropological Study of the Marakwet of Kenya. New 

York: The Guildford Press. 

ed. 1999. Anthropological Theory Today. Cambridge: Polity Press. 

Morphy, Howard. 1992. Ancestral Connections. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 
Morris, Brian. 1987. Anthropological Studies of Religion: An Introductory Text. New York: 

Cambridge University Press. 
Myers, Fred. 2002. Painting Culture: The Making of an Aboriginal High Art. Durham, NC: Duke 

University Press. 
Nagata, Judith. 2001. 'Beyond Theology: Toward an Anthropology of "Fundamentalism".' 

American Anthropologist 102 (2): 481-498. 
Needham, Rodney. 1972. Belief, Language and Experience. Oxford: Blackwell. 
Niehaus, Isak. 2001. 'Witchcraft in the New South Africa.' In Witchcraft, Power and Politics: 

Exploring the Occult in the South African Lowveld, edited by I. Niehaus, E. Mohlala and K. 

Shokane. Sterling, VA: Pluto Press. 
Nooter, Mary (Polly) H., ed. 1993. Secrecy: African Art that Conceal and Reveals. New York: 

The Museum for African Art. 
Nordstrom, Carolyn. 1997. 'The Eye of the Storm: From War to Peace-Examples from Sri 

Lanka and Mozambique.' In Cultural Variation in Conflict Resolution: Alternatives to Violence, 

edited by D. P. Fry and K. Bjorkqvistm. Mahway, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. 
Nye, Malory. 2001. Multiculturalism and Minority Religions in Britain: Krishna Consciousness, 

Religious Freedom, and the Politics of Location. London: Curzon. 
Palmie, Stephan. 2002. Wizards and Scientists: Explorations in Modernity and Afro-Cuban 

Tradition. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 
Peacock, James L. 1986. The Anthropological Lens: Harsh Light, Soft Focus. New York: 

Cambridge University Press. 
Pemberton III, John, ed. 2000. Insight and Artistry in African Divination. Washington, DC: 

Smithsonian Institution. 
Pigg, Stacy Leigh. 1996. 'The Credible and the Credulous: the Question of "Villagers' Beliefs" 

in Nepal.' Cultural Anthropology 11 (2): 160-201. 
Radcliffe-Brown, Arthur Reginald. 1952. Structure and Function in Primitive Society. Glencoe, 

IL: The Free Press. 
Robbins, Joel. 2003. 'What is a Christian? Notes Toward an Anthropology of Christianity.' 

Religion 33 (3): 191-291. 
Roberts, Allen F., Mary Nooter Roberts, Gassia Armenian, and Ousmane Gueye. 2003. A 

Saint in the City: Sufi Arts of Urban Senegal. Los Angeles: Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 

University of California Los Angeles. 

Anthropology of religion 163 

Sered, Susan. 1999. Women of the Sacred Groves: Divine Priestesses of Okinawa. New York: 

Oxford University Press. 
Shaw, Rosalind. 1995. 'Feminist Anthropology and the Gendering of Religious Studies.' In 

Religion and Gender, edited by U. King. Cambridge, USA: Blackwell. 
2002. Memories of the Slave Trade: Ritual and the Historical Imagination in Sierra Leone. 

Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 

and Charles Stewart, eds. 1994- Syncretism/ 'Anti-Syncretism: The Politics of Religious 

Synthesis. New York: Routledge. 
Soares, Benjamin F. 2004. 'Islam and Public Piety in Mali.' In Public Islam and the Common 

Good, edited by A. Salvatore and D. F. Eickelman. Leiden: Brill. 
Sommers, Marc. 2000. 'Urbanization, Pentecostalism, and Urban Refugee Youth in Africa.' 

Boston: Boston University African Studies Center. 
Spickard, James V., S. Shawn Landres, and Meredith B. McGuire, eds. 2002. Personal 

Knowledge and Beyond: Reshaping the Ethnography of Religion. New York: New York University 

Starrett, Gregory. 2003. 'Violence and the Rhetoric of Images.' Cultural Anthropology 18 (3): 

Stoller, Paul. 1989. The Taste of Ethnographic Things. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania 

1995. Embodying Colonial Memories: Spirit Possession, Power and the Hauka in West Africa. 

New York: Routledge. 

1997. Sensuous Scholarship. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 

Tambiah, Stanley J. 1996. Leveling Crowds: Ethnonationalist Conflicts and Collective Violence in 

South Asia. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California. 
Taussig, Michael. 1987. Shamanism, Colonialism and the Wild Man. Chicago: Chicago 

University Press. 
Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. 1993. In the Realm of the Diamond Queen. Princeton, NJ: Princeton 

University Press. 
Turner, Edith, ed. 1985. On the Edge of the Bush: Anthropology as Experience. Tucson, AZ: 

University of Arizona Press. 
Turner, Victor W. 1974- Dramas, Fields and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society. 

Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. 
, and Edward M. Bruner, eds. 1986. The Anthropology of Experience. Urbana, IL: University 

of Illinois Press. 
Tylor, Edward B. 1970 [1871]. Religion in Primitive Society. Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 
van Binsbergen, Wim. 1991. 'Becoming a Sangoma: Religious Anthropological Field- Work 

in Francistown, Botswana.' Journal of Religion in Africa 21 (4): 309-344- 
2003. lntercultural Encounters: African and Anthropological Lessons towards a Philosophy of 

Interculturality . Berlin/Muenster: LIT. 
Van Gennep, Arnold. 1960. The Rites of Passage. Translated by M. B. Vizedom and G. L. 

Caffee. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 
Veer, van der Peter, ed. 1996. Conversion to Modernities: the Globalization of Christianity. New 

York: Routledge. 
Vertovec, Steve. 2000. The Hindu Diaspora: Comparative Patterns. New York: Routledge. 
Vitebsky, Piers. 1995. The Shaman: Voyages of the Soul, Trance, Ecstasy and Healing from Siberia 

to the Amazon. London and Basingstoke: Macmillan in association with Duncan Baird 

Whitehouse, Harvey, and James Laidlaw. 2004. Ritual and Memory: Toward a Cognitive 

Anthropology of Religion. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira. 
Worsley, Peter. 1968. The Trumpet Shall Sound: A Study of 'Cargo' Cults in Melanesia. New 

York: Schocken Books. 

Chapter 9 

Psychology of religion 

Dan Merkur 

The psychology of religion studies the phenomena of religion in so far as they may 
be understood psychologically. Religions and their denominations differ regarding the 
extent of the psychologizing that they each embrace, tolerate, and reject. For many 
religious devotees, psychological understanding is inherently antagonistic to religion 
because it ascribes to the human mind what those devotees credit to more-than- 
human agencies. They view the psychology of religion as a program that reduces 
religion to psychology. Other devotees are instead sympathetic to the psychology of 
religion. They value critical research as an irreplaceable means for the purification 
of religion from idolatry of the merely human. 

Like psychology in general, the psychology of religion is an umbrella term for the 
findings of several, mutually exclusive schools of thought, each with its own research 
agenda and methodology. The major disciplinary affiliations include: the academic 
study of religion; academic psychology; psychoanalysis; analytic psychology; and 
transpersonal psychology. These several approaches to the psychological study of reli- 
gion tend to be pursued in isolation from each other, as non-communicating and 
mutually disdainful subdisciplines. A useful way to comprehend both their strengths 
and their differences is to attend to the questions that they seek to answer. The 
overall project of each school of thought determines both what data it addresses and 
what methodologies it considers appropriate. 

Psychology in the service of the history of religion 

Psychologically oriented studies by historians of religion adhere to the methodological 
phenomenology of the history of religion in general. The manifest contents of religious 
experience are discussed, but no mention is ever made of the unconscious. The ques- 
tion of primary interest for this school of research has been whether psychology can 
explain otherwise inexplicable features of the historical record of the world's many and 
diverse religions. The psychology of religion, so conceived, subserves the writing of the 
history of religion, addresses the religious past more frequently than the religious 
present, and has been minutely attentive to cross-cultural findings in world religions. 
Rejecting theories of cultural evolution that contrasted 'magic' and 'religion', Rudolf 
Otto (1932) suggested that experiences of the holy or 'numinous' were the defining 
characteristics of religion. For Otto (1950 [1917]), the numinous was a sui generis cat- 
egory of human experience. The quality of numinosity is sometimes experienced as 
awe and urgency at the mystery and immanent majesty of the Wholly Other; it may 

Psychology of religion 165 

alternatively be known as a fascination at an august and transcendent 'Something 
More'. Otto's student and colleague, Nathan Soderblom (1933), argued that experi- 
ences of the numinous explained the veneration of sacred books. The world's scriptures 
are not held to be holy merely because of the ideas that they contain. Rather, the texts 
are sacred because their ideas concern living powers. Scriptures pertain to spirits, gods, 
or God that people encounter in personal religious experiences. When the numina 
cease to be experienced, interest in the books fails. 

Many historians of religion pursued similar lines of inquiry with increasing detail. 
Soderblom's student Ernst Arbman (1939) argued that myths are venerated because 
the gods that they portray are credited with invisible responsibility for the fortuitous 
events of everyday life. Should belief in providential miracles fail, however, the myths 
decline into folktales. Biblical scholars noted that some Israelite prophets were 
described in fashions consistent with physically active trance states. Other ancient 
prophets were clearly not in trances. Some biblical data pointed to hypnagogic states, 
which occur between waking and falling asleep. Other prophets may have experi- 
enced inspirations during dream-like states of deep trance. Attention was also called 
to the ecstatic, experiential side of classical Greek religion; and the distinctive features 
of shamanism were noted in a variety of contexts. Zoroaster, the prophet who 
reformed ancient Iranian religion, was alleged to have been a shaman; and the legend 
of the opening of Muhammad's breast was treated as a folklore motif that described 
a shamanic initiation. The character of Vainamoinen in the Finnish national epic, 
The Kalevala was identified as a shaman; and detailed studies were made of Siberian, 
Lapp, Native American, and other cultural variations of shamanism, past and present. 

Underlying these psychologically oriented studies in the history of religion is the 
axiomatic assumption that most people are religious because they personally have 
religious experiences. Good and bad fortune may be attributed to demons, spirits, 
gods, God, karma, or what you will. Both conversions and subsequent encounters 
with numinous beings and numinous states of existence may proceed through dreams, 
visions, voices, or mystical unions. Notice needs also to be taken of occasional, highly 
emotionally charged rites. These orders of religious experience are, for those who 
have them, the very core of religion itself. In this approach to religion, people believe 
in myths, they subscribe to theologies, they engage in rites, precisely because they 
have religious experiences. For devotees, religious experiences confirm, prove, modify, 
extend — in short, motivate — the balance of what religion entails. 

Two Swedish scholars who were trained by Soderblom formalized the axiomatic 
assumption with detailed psychological theories. Ernst Arbman argued that religious 
trance states, which he documented on a worldwide basis, varied in their contents 
in accord with the religious beliefs and expectations of the devotee. The religious 
belief complex was converted by the trance state from a series of ideas into a vivid, 
dream-like experience. Differences among visions, voices, automatic behaviour, stig- 
mata, solipsistic mystical unions, and all other trance phenomena, reflected differences 
in the pre-trance beliefs and expectations. 

Hjalmar Sunden instead adapted the notion of a 'social role' from its original 
context in reference to interpersonal behavior as observed by social psychologists. 
The term had greater application in the study of religion, he maintained, than in 
explaining the roles of shaman, prophet, priest, lay person, mystic, and so forth. 
Sunden applied the concept to the apparent behavior of a greater-than-human 

166 Key approaches to the study of religions 

personality, such as a spirit, angel, or God, as it manifests in a religious experience. 
Sunden proposed that people may learn a variety of roles that may manifest in the 
course of their religious experiences. 

The theories of Arbman and Sunden both imply that religious experiences are 
learned behaviour, whose differences are to be sought in the contents of the learning. 
It then follows that whether discussion is to be made of belief complexes or religious 
roles, analysis of the learned materials can be pursued competently by historians, 
without need for special training in psychology. This conclusion is a product of histo- 
rians' methods, however. Only when the psychology of religion is limited to the 
identification of patterns in historical religious data does psychological expertise 
become unnecessary. 

Religion as group pathology 

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), the founder of psychoanalysis, once privately remarked, 
'Mankind has always known that it possesses spirit: I had to show it that there are 
also instincts'. A few sentences later, he went on to reject the validity of religion. 
'Religion originates in the helplessness and anxiety of childhood and early manhood. 
It cannot be otherwise'. The apparent contradiction is to be explained by the special 
senses in which Freud referred to spirit and religion. For Freud, spirit (in German, 
Geist) was an objectively existing intellectual power abroad in the cosmos that is 
responsible for life, consciousness, and telepathy. Religion, by contrast, was defined, 
in conformance with liberal nineteenth-century Christian and Jewish theologies, as 
a 'system of doctrines and promises' concerning 'a careful Providence' that is imag- 
ined 'in the figure of an enormously exalted father'. Freud saw both magic and religion 
as misunderstandings of the nature of spirit that substituted infantile hopes and wishes 
for a scientifically valid parapsychology. 

Freud wrote very little about spirit, but extensively about magic and religion. His 
writings regularly addressed the questions: What is religion? And why are people reli- 
gious? His answer was always that religion was an error, a cultural neurosis that a 
rational and realistic person ought to abandon. 

Freud expressed his basic view of religion in a dense paragraph in 'Leonardo da 
Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood' (1957 [1910]): 

Psycho-analysis has made us familiar with the intimate connection between the 
father-complex and belief in God; it has shown us that a personal God is, psycho- 
logically, nothing other than an exalted father, and it brings us evidence every 
day of how young people lose their religious beliefs as soon as their father's 
authority breaks down. Thus we recognize that the roots of the need for religion 
are in the parental complex; the almighty and just God, and kindly Nature, 
appear to us as grand sublimations of father and mother, or rather as revivals 
and restorations of the young child's ideas of them. Biologically speaking, reli- 
giousness is to be traced to the small human child's long-drawn-out helplessness 
and need of help; and when at a later date he perceives how truly forlorn and 
weak he is when confronted with the great forces of life, he feels his condition 
as he did in childhood, and attempts to deny his own despondency by a regressive 
revival of the forces which protected his infancy. 

Psychology of religion 167 

With very few changes, Freud maintained the same position for the remainder of his 
life. Religion functions primarily to offer consolation for human helplessness. The 
consolation is fictional. God is a fantasy that is based on infantile memories of father 
and mother and motivated by human helplessness. 

In an essay entitled 'Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices' (1959 [1907]), 
Freud noted several parallels between personal rites that occur as symptoms of neurosis 
and the public rites of religions. He suggested that both arise as symbolic substitutes 
for unconscious guilt. In neurotic rites, the unconscious guilt is sexual; in religious 
rites, it is a response to egoism. 

In Totem and Taboo (1958 [1913]), Freud expanded his argument to book length. 
He began by summarizing the anthropological evidence that incest is prohibited in 
aboriginal Australian cultures. Noting the widespread practice of avoiding mothers- 
in-law, Freud commented that extreme forms of avoidance had been added in these 
cases to a core prohibition of incest, in much the same irrational manner that obses- 
sional neurotics multiply inhibitions. Because no one bothers to prohibit anything 
that is not desired, the two basic taboos of aboriginal Australian religions — not to 
kill the totem animal, and not to marry within the clan - indicate the content of 
the oldest and most powerful human desires. These desires are to kill the ancestral 
totem animal and to commit incest. Freud also connected guilt over the desire for 
patricide with the widespread belief in, fear of, and devotion toward ancestral spirits. 
Working with the assumption, widely shared at the time, that aboriginal Australian 
religion was a surviving instance of the most primitive form of religion, Freud located 
the Oedipus complex — a boy's unconscious wish to kill his father and have sex with 
his mother - at the core of the evolution of religion. 

Like many of his contemporaries, Freud treated magic and religion as categorically 
separate phenomena. Freud maintained that magic was to be explained by the 
'omnipotence of thoughts', a phenomenon that is found in obsessional neurosis in 
which thoughts are projected onto and substituted for reality. Magic is narcissistic in 
that it attributes supernatural power to the self, rather than to ancestral ghosts, totem 
spirits, and so forth. Because magic does not presuppose the existence of personal spir- 
its, as religion does, Freud treated it as an older, pre-Oedipal stage in cultural evolu- 
tion. In locating spirit outside the self, religion is less incorrect than magic, although 
still categorically short of a realistic, scientific worldview. Freud considered totem 
animals to be earlier than anthropomorphic deities, because they are more fantastic. 
Totem and Taboo continued with a demonstration that the chief features of anim- 
ism and magic occur normally in childhood; and concluded with a speculative 
reconstruction of how the Oedipus complex may have evolved in the species. 

In subsequent presentations, Freud repeatedly revised his theory of conscience. He 
discarded his notion of 'social instincts', introduced the concept of personally vari- 
able 'ego ideals', and settled finally on a partly conscious and partly unconscious 
process that he termed the 'superego'. In all cases, religion arose through the repres- 
sion and symbolic displacement of unconscious guilt, where neurosis arose through 
the repression and symbolic displacement of sexual instincts. 

In Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1955 [1921]), Freud created a 
theoretic bridge between individual and group psychology. He suggested that group 
members share an ego ideal that consists of or is embodied by the group leader. The 
devotion to the leader provides cohesion to the group, despite the rivalry that is also 

168 Key approaches to the study of religions 

inevitably present. To illustrate the processes of group psychology, Freud used the 
examples of an army and the Roman Catholic Church. 

Freud's next major statement on religion, The Future of an Illusion (1961 [1927]), 
was written as an imaginary dialogue with a proponent of religion. To his previous 
accounts of religion as a consolation, Freud added several new points. Civilization 
depends on coercion and the renunciation of instinct. Prohibitions are initially 
external and imposed on the individual, but through the course of a child's devel- 
opment they are internalized as the superego. The superego houses both personal 
ideals that can be a source of rivalry and group ideals that are the basis for forming 
cultural units. Religious ideals play an important role in the promotion of civilization 
through their internalization in the superego. 

The valuable socializing function of religion does not mitigate the fallacies of its 
contents. Religion has its basis in the anthropomorphizing of nature. Religion asserts 
that external reality is subject to personal spirits and gods, on whom one may safely 
depend as in childhood, one depended on one's parents. The belief that nature is 
benign and parental is an illusion. The illusion can be neither verified nor falsified; 
its treatment as true proceeds out of the wish that it were so, rather than through 
logical necessity. The illusion is maintained at the cost of denying the corresponding 
reality. Diagnosing religion as 'the universal obsessional neurosis of humanity' that 
intimidates the intelligence in order to maintain its illusions, Freud predicted that 
religion would everywhere be abandoned in response to the advancement of science. 
At the same time, he acknowledged that the veneration of nature had historically 
promoted the close observations that led to the rise of natural science. 

In Civilization and Its Discontents (1961 [1930]), Freud repeated his arguments 
concerning the regulatory function of religion, but placed greater emphasis on its 
punitive dimension. Where, in 1927, Freud had written of the superego internalizing 
civilization, in 1930, he stated that the superego turns aggression against the self. It 
is this diversion of aggression into guilt that makes civilization possible. Art, reli- 
gion, and other illusions flourish under the protection, as it were, of the superego. 
Religion compares badly with art, however, 'since it imposes equally on everyone its 
own path to the acquisition of happiness and protection from suffering. Its technique 
consists in depressing the value of life and distorting the picture of the real world 
in a delusional manner — which presupposes an intimidation of the intelligence'. In 
keeping with his increased pessimism, Freud now called religion a 'mass-delusion' — 
a malignancy significantly greater than the merely fanciful error of an 'illusion'. 

Freud also acknowledged that religion has a third function, additional to conso- 
lation and socialization. Religion permits instinctual wishes to be 'sublimated' through 
their diversion to social valued and refined ends. Freud viewed religion as second 
only to art in promoting culture through transformations of sexuality and aggression 
into civilized behaviour. Freud placed little weight on sublimations, however, saying 
'their intensity is mild as compared with that derived from the sating of crude and 
primary instinctual impulses'. In his private correspondence with Oskar Pfister, Freud 
nevertheless acknowledged that pastoral psychology makes more efficient use than 
psychoanalysis of the therapeutic potential of sublimation. 

Freud's trivialization of the religious function of sublimation was partly nominal- 
istic. In keeping with his definition of religion as ethical theism, Freud asserted that 
the 'oceanic feeling' of mystical experience was not religious, but was connected with 

Psychology of religion 169 

religion only secondarily. Freud's exclusion of mysticism from his discussions of reli- 
gion may be contrasted, for example, with the many writers, from William James 
onward, who place the joys of mystical experience at the very centre of their 
psychologies of religion. 

Unlike Totem and Taboo (1958 [1913]), which anthropologists regarded as 
amateurish but stimulating, Freud's Moses and Monotheism (1964 [1939]) made no 
useful contribution to modern Biblical criticism. Its rejection by academic scholar- 
ship has been unequivocal, and its thesis, that Moses was an Egyptian whose 
impositions on the Jews induced them to murder him, is perhaps best treated as a 
fantasy requiring psychoanalysis. 

The book's addition to Freud's theory of religion consists of its analysis of the 
Mosaic commandment that prohibits the making of Divine images. Freud took the 
commandment to imply that Moses conceived of a God who has no form. Proceeding 
from this premise, Freud suggested that the abstract concept of God is derived from 
concrete images of God, through a 'triumph of intellectuality over sensuality or, 
strictly speaking, an instinctual renunciation'. Freud remarked that 'all such advances 
in intellectuality have as their consequence that the individual's self-esteem is 
increased' (p. 115). 

Freud's view of religion exhibits his lifelong method of shaping a piece of theory 
to explain a piece of data, and gradually accumulating a great many pieces. There 
was no overall system. Many pieces cohere, but others do not. The total picture 
suffers, as is often remarked, from Freud's clinical orientation. He understood reli- 
gion best in so far as religion resembled phenomena that he encountered among his 
patients: obsessive ritual behavior, delusional belief-systems, and the like. Freud partly 
or wholly neglected other features of religion. 

Object relations and the revalorization of religion 

Freud's questions — what is religion? why are people religious? is religion healthy? — 
have remained the major concerns of psychoanalytic writings on religion. Psycho- 
analysts quietly abandoned the most egregious features of Freud's position: his 
devotion to telepathy, his cultural evolutionism, and his amateurish Bible scholar- 
ship. His paradigm was otherwise retained by both classical psychoanalysts and 
psychoanalytic ego psychologists. 

Oskar Pfister, a Lutheran pastor, psychoanalyst, and personal friend of Freud, was 
the first person to apply psychoanalytic principles to education. Pfister's major contri- 
butions (1923, 1948) to the study of religion had a clinical thrust. Where Freud saw 
religion as intrinsically pathological, Pfister saw psychoanalysis as a means to purify 
religion by identifying its morbid components. The neurotic aspects of religion could 
then be abandoned, and only healthy aspects retained. 

Pfister's orientation was given powerful support by the clinical studies of Ana- 
Maria Rizzuto (1979), who noted that psychoanalytic patients' relations with God 
are complex, nuanced, and in process of continuous development, in a fashion that 
is consistent with their relations with other people. Rizzuto 's finding has been amply 
confirmed by other psychoanalysts. The finding is inconsistent with Freud's theory 
that God is the exalted father. Were God a symbol that displaces memories of the 
father as he was seen by the young child, a person's relation with God would be 

170 Key approaches to the study of religions 

fixated and unchanging in its infantilism. It would not be in process of continuing 
growth and development. 

There are cases, however, when people's relations with God are fixated, in part or 
whole. In these cases, the fixations prove isomorphic with the fixations in the same 
people's relations with other people. They are cognitively and emotionally irrational 
in the same ways in their relations with God and with other people. Jacob Arlow 
(1995) has consequently referred to God as a transferential figure. Rather than to 
analyze a person's relation with the psychoanalyst, a person's relation with God can 
sometimes be analyzed to therapeutic ends. This clinical psychoanalytic finding is 
again inconsistent with Freud's diagnosis of morbidity. In at least some cases, religion 
can be therapeutic. 

Because Freud's theories of religion cannot account for these clinical findings of 
religion's wholesomeness, contemporary psychoanalysts favour a revision of Freud's 
diagnosis. The preferred position was advanced by Donald W. Winnicott, a major 
contributor to the British school of psychoanalytic object relations theory. Winnicott 
began by drawing attention to the infant's special attachment to its 'first not-me 
possession', a cloth, teddy bear, or doll that the infant cannot bear to be without. 
Its importance for the infant is accepted by the family, given social validation through 
tolerant regard, and surrounded with appropriate ritualized behaviors. Winnicott 
contended that a 'transitional object' is, for the infant, both part of the infant and 
an external reality. Logically paradoxical, it is experientially coherent, for it belongs 
to 'an intermediate area of experiencing . . . which is not challenged, because no claim 
is made on its behalf except that it shall exist as a resting-place for the individual'. 

Winnicott was primarily concerned with infancy, but in a remarkable intuitive leap 
he extrapolated from the clinical evidence to a general theory of culture. Alluding to 
Freud's designation of religion as an illusion, Winnicott revalorized illusion: 

Illusion ... is allowed to the infant, and ... in adult life is inherent in art and 
religion, and yet becomes the hallmark of madness when an adult puts too 
powerful a claim on the credulity of others, forcing them to acknowledge a 
sharing of illusion that is not their own. We can share a respect for illusory experi- 
ence, and if we wish we may collect together and form a group on the basis of 
the similarity of our illusory experiences. 

Winnicott asserted that illusory experiences range from the transitional objects of 
infancy through play to creativity and the whole of cultural life. Because illusory 
experiences are unavoidable, they must be considered normal and healthy. They 
remain projections that buffer the individual from reality. However, Freud's either/or 
distinction between inner (psychic) and external (physical) reality is overly simplistic. 
Illusory experiences form a third class of phenomena. 

Paul W. Pruyser (1974), a pastoral psychologist, maintained that an individual's 
capacity for illusory experience determines 'a disposition or a talent for the numi- 
nous', as is also the case for artistic creativity and art appreciation. Not everyone 
needs or likes to develop the transitional sphere. Among those who do, differences 
in taste - which are partly constitutional and partly acquired - lead to different pref- 
erences among art, literature, drama, music, religious ideas, metaphysical speculation, 
and ethical propositions. Arguing in the tradition of the historians of religion Otto 

Psychology of religion 171 

and van der Leeuw, Pruyser asserted the intrinsically religious character of 'limit situ- 
ations' because they involve 'transcendence and master}! . . . charged with cognitive, 
ontological, epistemological, and emotional implications'. 

Pruyser emphasized that 'adequate reality-testing is needed to keep the transitional 
sphere properly bounded, and its content and language consensually validated'. 
Religions have historically permitted illusions to shade over into hallucination and 
delusion whenever 'excessive fantasy formation' has led to 'flagrant disregard of the 
obvious features of outer reality'. In Pruyser's view, the truth claims of religions may 
be valid if they are maintained as illusions — that is, as matters of faith — but they 
are definitely and necessarily false if they are presented as theological certainties. 

Pfister's concern with the questions, 'What is sick? and what healthy in religion?', 
remains a major focus of clinical interest. The impact of religion on psychotherapy 
and the handling of religious issues in psychotherapy are pressing concerns for 
psychotherapists who work with religious clientele. 

The psychological shaping of religion 

The term 'applied psychoanalysis' refers to the application of clinical psychoanalytic 
theories to cultural data. The term implies that art, religion, literature, and other 
cultural expressions are used to illustrate and popularize theories that have been 
developed clinically. In keeping with this procedure, most psychoanalytic writings 
on religion seek to explain which stages of child development are at work in specific 
rituals and myths. Classical psychoanalysts assumed that rituals and myths were 
pathological symptoms of psychosexual fixations. Psychoanalytic ego psychologists 
introduced the view that different myths are of interest to people at different times 
in their lives, because the myths give symbolic expression to the developmental issues 
of different stages of life. Myths and other cultural expressions may be either whole- 
some or morbid. In both cases, they provide models in the use of symbols for the 
organization of their audiences' emotional lives. 

Because these studies use religious data to illustrate developmental theories, they 
have rarely been of interest to academic students of religion. A notable exception 
is Erik Erikson's (1958) biography of Martin Luther, whose major contention was 
that Luther's adolescent rebellion against an abusive and domineering father was 
prototypical of his rebellion against the Roman Catholic Church. His personality 
both limited and promoted different aspects of his religion. 

Spiritual awakening 

A third major trend in the psychology of religion was begun by two founders 
of academic psychology, Edwin Diller Starbuck (1911 [1899]) and William James 
(1958 [1902]), but went into eclipse during the heyday of behaviourism. Familiar as 
Starbuck and James were with the evangelical tradition of American Protestantism, 
they conceptualized the psychology of religion, above all else, as the study of the 
process by which a non-religious person becomes religious. Where Freud had asked, 
'What religious phenomena become coherent through their resemblance to psycho- 
pathology?', Starbuck and James implicitly asked, 'How does religion differ from irre- 
ligion? What psychological phenomena are uniquely religious, that is, are unlike any 

172 Key approaches to the study of religions 

and all non-religious phenomena?'. These questions led them to study religious 

In Starbuck's opinion, the spiritual path begins with conversion but culminates in 
a further experience termed sanctification. Because sin ceases to be tempting, evil 
habits are abandoned, altruism increases, and there is a sense of having achieved 
complete union with one's spiritual ideals. 

James expanded Starbuck's model to address Catholicism as well as evangelical 
Protestantism. According to James, 'healthy-minded religion' develops straightfor- 
wardly, without dramatic processes. Because the healthy-minded are at peace with 
their own imperfections, they feel no need to undergo spiritual development in any 
meaningful sense of the term. It is only the sick soul that must be twice-born in 
order to attain its natural inner unity and peace. The divided self gains unity through 
conversion. Some conversions occur during mystical moments. Others do not. When 
conversion is not followed by backsliding but is permanent, the individual achieves 
saintliness — a quality that is characterized by asceticism, strength of soul, purity, and 

Following Starbuck and James, many studies were made of conversion, but the 
treatment of a theological category, 'conversion', as though it were a psychological one 
has proved unworkable. Discussions of religious conversion address three separate psy- 
chological phenomena: (1) a change from irreligiosity to religiosity; (2) a change of 
existing religiosity from conventional routine to personal and devout; and (3) a change 
of affiliation from one religion to another. Because studies of conversion often pro- 
ceeded at cross-purposes with each other, the larger topic of spiritual transformation 
was neglected until the rise of humanistic and transpersonal psychology in the 1960s 
and 1970s. 

A pioneer of humanistic psychology, Abraham Maslow (1964) suggested that 
people have a hierarchy of motives, that commence with physiological needs, safety, 
belongingness and love, and progress to less necessary objects of desire, such as self- 
esteem, satisfaction striving or growth motivation, the need to know, aesthetic needs, 
and Being-values. Maslow identified Being-values through an analysis of peak expe- 
riences, including mystical. The values included: truth, goodness, beauty, wholeness, 
dichotomy-transcendence, aliveness, uniqueness, necessity, completion, justice, order, 
simplicity, richness, effortlessness, playfulness, and self-sufficiency. 

Maslow contended that psychological changes conform with progress along the 
hierarchy of values. The changes that are sought through psychotherapy serve to heal 
deficiencies in the areas of belongingness, love, and self-esteem. Their function is to 
end existing psychic pain. Psychotherapy may be considered successful when these 
motives are satisfied. It is also possible, however, for the personality to move beyond 
health into excellence, when the further motives for growth, knowledge, aesthetics, 
and Being-values come to the fore. Maslow adopted the term 'self-actualization' in 
order to discuss the achievement of these goals. 

Maslow argued, and quantitative studies have since confirmed, that traditional reli- 
gious beliefs and observances are obstacles to self-actualization, particularly if they 
are conservative. On the other hand, because self-actualized people tend to have 
mystical peak experiences, Maslow and several other psychologists assumed the 
converse, that the world's mystical paths are techniques, among other matters, for 
self-actualization. The term 'transpersonal' denoting progress beyond self, to achieve 

Psychology of religion 173 

something more than self alone, was introduced by Roberto Assagioli, who had 
founded psychosynthesis decades earlier. As it was defined in the 1970s, the project 
of transpersonal psychology was to place spiritual transformation and spiritual 
direction, so far as possible, on cross-cultural and scientific footing. 

Assagioli (1991) developed a longitudinal, psychodynamic account of a clinically 
observable process that he termed 'self-realization' or 'spiritual awakening'. The 
process begins with an existential crisis regarding the meaning of life that is often 
attended by resistance of all solutions. One or more religious experiences occur next. 
The experiences are typically euphoric and profoundly meaningful. Their occurrence 
terminates the existential crisis, but frequently precipitates a crisis of another sort. 
The newly discovered meaningfulness of spirituality is made the pretext of narcis- 
sistic inflation or grandiosity. Once the inflation wanes, depression may set in. The 
depression often has an ethical content of remorse over past moral failings. If the 
depression is intolerable, the religious experiences may be denied, much as ideas born 
of alcoholic intoxication are discounted during subsequent sobriety. Alternatively, 
the newly appreciated spiritual values may be made the basis of behavioural change 
to embody the values. The reformation or transformation of character inevitably 
proceeds gradually, by small increments. 

In many and perhaps most cases, spiritual awakenings do not proceed in uncom- 
plicated fashions that would be consistent with Maslow's concept of a growth from 
mental health toward excellence. Because very few people are completely non- 
neurotic, most awakenings are complicated by pathological symptoms that arise out 
of unresolved conflicts within the personality. Christina and Stanislav Grof (1990) 
introduced the term, 'spiritual emergency', to denote a spiritual awakening that is 
complicated by psychopathology. The differences between a spiritual emergency and 
a psychiatric disorder include: absence of physical disease; absence of brain pathology; 
absence of organic impairment; intact, clear consciousness and coordination; contin- 
uing ability to communicate and cooperate; adequate pre-episode functioning; ability 
to relate and cooperate, often even during religious experiences; awareness of the 
intrapsychic nature of the process; sufficient trust to accept help and cooperate; ability 
to honor basic rules of therapy; absence of destructive or self-destructive ideas and 
tendencies; good cooperation in things related to physical health, basic maintenance, 
and hygienic rules. Spiritual emergencies are among the syndromes that have been 
recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV of the American Psychiatric 
Association as 'V62.89 Religious or Spiritual Problem'. 

The conceptualization of single religious experiences in terms of creativity, 
commensurate with scientific and artistic achievement, was suggested by the social 
psychologists Daniel Batson and Larry Vends (Batson, Schoenrade, and Vends 1997). 
Merkur compared the longitudinal process of spiritual awakening with Wallas's classic 
model of four phases of creativity: (1) the establishment of a problem, for example, 
an existential crisis, or a developmental growth in intelligence; (2) the unconscious 
incubation of the problem's solution; (3) the manifestation of a creative solution as 
the content of one or more religious experiences, possibly precipitating a spiritual 
emergency; and (4) the refinement of the solution through its practical, behavioural 
implementation. In Merkur's (1999) model, religious experiences differ from the 
creative inspirations of painters, writers, musicians, scientists, and so forth, in having 
numinous 'limit situations' as their subject matter. 

174 Key approaches to the study of religions 

Some writers conceptualize spiritual awakening as spiritual in a metaphysical sense. 
In other cases, it is psychologized, for example, as self-actualization in Maslow's model 
or, alternatively, from Merkur's psychoanalytic perspective as a process of positive 
superego manifestation and integration. 

Transpersonal psychotherapy 

Because transpersonal psychology was unable to find a home in the academy, many 
practitioners came to depend for their income on private practices as psychotherapists. 
These financial constraints motivated a change in many transpersonalists' agendas. 
Rather than to research spiritual awakening, transpersonalists who were therapists 
came to promote spiritual practices as adjuncts to psychotherapy. Meditations, visual- 
izations, prayer, and other religious practices were found to be useful in psychother- 
apy, for example, in learning self-observation, in cultivating self-discipline, and in 
building self-esteem. 

Valuable as the procedures are clinically, the results are inevitably sectarian. Which- 
ever meditations, visualizations, prayers, and so forth that a therapist enjoins on a client 
inevitably belong to one particular religion or another. The practices never belong to 
religion in general. Some transpersonal therapists are syncretistic in their borrowings; 
others confine themselves to the practices of a particular religious tradition. 

The slippage of transpersonal psychology from the study into the practice of reli- 
gion has given rise to a genre of apologetic literature. The writings claim that one 
or another tradition of religious mysticism (Zen, Sufism, Kabbalah, and so forth) is 
inherently therapeutic. Although the writings are published as psychology, they are 
better considered as theology. 

Religious development 

All authorities agree that religiosity takes different forms at different ages. No 
consensus has emerged, however, regarding the contents and duration of the stages. 
William W. Meissner, a Jesuit and a psychoanalyst, has argued that a person's reli- 
gion reflects whatever may be the person's developmental stage at the time. Working, 
for example, with Erikson's model of the developmental growth of ego autonomy, 
Meissner suggested that faith and hope are issues in infancy. Contrition comes to 
the fore in early childhood. The central issues in later years are: penance and temper- 
ance in the kindergarten years; fortitude in grade school; humility in adolescence; 
the love of neighbors in young adulthood; service, zeal, and self-sacrifice in adulthood; 
and charity in maturity. 

Recognizing that people's experiences are not necessarily limited to their current 
developmental issues, but may involve reversions to previous concerns, Meissner 
(1984) later proposed a typology of five modes of religious experience. The first is 
dominated by an absence of subject-object distinctions. The second reflects the world- 
view of toddlers. The veneration of idealized religious figures is necessary to sustain 
and maintain the sense of self. Faith is 'riddled with a sense of utter dependence, a 
terror of the omnipotence of the godhead, and a superstitious and magical need to 
placate by ritual and ceremonial'. The third mode reflects the anal stage of psycho- 
analytic theory. The self is cohesive, but efforts must be made to secure self-esteem. 

Psychology of religion 175 

Concepts tend to be concrete, literal, and one-dimensional. Religious figures are autho- 
ritative, and myths tend to be anthropomorphic. Religious concerns address the 
permitted and the prohibited, the fear of punishment for transgressions, and the dutiful 
performance of obligations and rituals. The fourth mode presupposes the consolida- 
tion of the superego and, with it, the internalization of conscience around age six. 
Ethics and social concerns are at a premium. Recognition is made of the diversity of 
authorities. Conflicts are resolved partly through compartmentalization but partly 
through reliance on one's own judgment. Meissner remarked that 'by far the largest 
portion of adult religious behavior falls into this modality'. 

Meissner's fifth and final mode of religious experience becomes possible when still 
greater maturity has been attained. In the fifth mode, instinctual drives are managed 
successfully, so that the ego enjoys considerable autonomy. Anxiety is lessened 
dramatically and is largely restricted to realistic external concerns. Wisdom, empathy, 
humor, and creativity come to the fore, and conflicts tend to be resolved through 
synthesis rather than compartmentalization. 'The religious belief system and its tradi- 
tion are seen in increasingly realistic terms that affirm their inherent tensions and 
ambiguities and accept the relativity, partiality, and particularity of the beliefs, 
symbols, rituals, and ceremonials of the religious community'. 

A significantly different developmental scheme was offered by James W. Fowler 
(1981), who worked with a Piagetian model of cognitive development. Fowler postu- 
lated a preverbal stage of undifferentiated faith and counted six further stages through 
the life span. He attributed a fantasy-filled, imitative 'intuitive-projective' faith to 
children between 3 and 7 years of age, a 'mythic-literal' faith to grade schoolers, and 
a 'synthetic-conventional faith' to adolescents. After remarking that many adults 
never progress beyond synthetic-conventional faith, Fowler listed 'individuative- 
reflective' faith in young adulthood when people take responsibility for themselves, 
'conjunctive faith' in mid-life when exceptions and compromises seem most realistic, 
and a 'universalizing' faith in rare individuals, martyrs among them. 

Whether psychoanalytic or cognitive in the stages that they discern in the life 
span, existing accounts of religious development have regularly treated liberal, church- 
going Christianity as normative. Their descriptions of optimal development are 
inconsistent with the literalism of Christian fundamentalism; they are equally incon- 
sistent with a personal practice of mystical experiences. Given the bias of the 
developmental models, it is relevant to note that spiritual awakenings typically lead 
to beliefs in clairvoyance, precognition, and providential miracles. James seems to 
have been correct in suggesting that the religion of the healthy-minded does not 
achieve the immediacy and intensity of the religion of the twice-born. 

Religion as psychotherapy 

Analytic psychology, which Carl G. Jung developed following his break with Freud 
in 1912, is the approach to the psychology of religion that has been most favored 
by religious devotees, both in the academy and in the public at large. It was the first 
of the modern systems of psychology to be premised on the question, 'Is religiosity 
not inherently therapeutic?'. 

Jung (1969) premised analytic psychology on the assumption that the 'collective 
unconscious' or 'objective psyche' is universal in compass. The objective psyche is 

176 Key approaches to the study of religions 

responsible, among other phenomena, for astrology, telepathy, prophecy, and fortu- 
itous physical events — all of which Jung summarized under the term 'synchronicity'. 
The objective psyche is cosmic, yet it is simultaneously a component of the personal 
psyche of each human individual. Dreams manifest materials that originate from both 
the personal and the collective unconscious. 

The objective psyche is composed of archetypes. Archetypes exist in the personal 
psyche as inborn clusters of form and motivation that constitute 'mentally expressed 
instincts'. However, the forms and behavioural urges have their source in the objec- 
tive psyche and not in human genetics alone. Archetypes are personal entities that 
exist independently of human beings. Jung described them as 'autonomous animalia 
gifted with a sort of consciousness and psychic life of their own'. 

Archetypes are always unconscious. They are unable to become conscious. What 
manifests is not an archetype but a mental image that expresses an archetype. The 
major archetypal images are three: the anima, which represents the feminine; the ani- 
mus, which represents the masculine; and the shadow, which represents all that is 
rejected as evil and projected as other. Jung counted the sage, the father, the mother, 
the child, the hero, and the trickster as archetypal images of lesser importance. 

Jung held that the unconscious manifests to consciousness in a compensatory man- 
ner. Should an archetype's manifestations be undervalued or repressed, or its opposite 
be overemphasized in consciousness, the psyche's need for equilibrium causes the 
archetype to manifest a compensatory quantity of appropriate archetypal images. 
Because every spontaneous manifestation of an archetypal image is compensatory, 
archetypal manifestation is intrinsically therapeutic. Although the design of the objec- 
tive psyche is intelligent and purposive, the process of compensatory manifestation is 
itself regulated automatically in a quantitative manner. 

In Jung's view, both dreams and religious experiences are instances of direct and 
unmediated manifestations of archetypal images. Although they are compensatory, 
dreams are irrational, while religious experiences consist of 'passionate conflicts, 
panics of madness, desperate confusions and depressions which were grotesque and 
terrible at the same time'. Jung provided no criteria for distinguishing acute psychosis 
from a spiritual emergency; he seems to have made no such distinction. 

For Jung, myths were to be seen in parallel, as culturally shared manifestations of 
the archetypes that give expression to the instinctual structures of the objective 
psyche. Like dreams, myths are compensatory. Although the archetypes that they 
manifest are eternal, myths are historical phenomena that provide correction for 'the 
inadequacy and one-sidedness of the present' in fashions appropriate to their eras 
and cultures. 

Therapy consists of 'individuating' or achieving psychic distance from archetypal 
images. One may then be able to experience the images, without being compelled 
to act on their basis. Organized religion is semi-therapeutic. Through 'a solidly organ- 
ized dogma and ritual', Jung wrote, 'people are effectively defended and shielded 
against immediate religious experience'. A complete therapy moves beyond dogma 
and ritual into innovative, creative manipulations of archetypal images. 

Jung also explained the individuation process in developmental terms. A child's 
worldview consists of a naive realism, an unreflecting and uncritical assumption that 
the habitual has the objective status of truth and law. This stage is succeeded by a 
maturing worldview whose rational and critical character liberates consciousness to 

Psychology of religion 177 

a measure of autonomy. In its autonomy, however, critical consciousness suffers from 
the relativism of its own subjectivity. With a variety of differing subjectivities equally 
tenable, the psyche is driven into illness. The third and final developmental stage 
consists of the compensatory intervention of the unconscious. The pathogenic isola- 
tion of consciousness is interrupted by the manifestation of archetypal images. The 
images collectively alert consciousness to its grounding in the unconscious. Stability 
is regained, but with the naive ontological assumptions of the first stage replaced by 
the self-consciously psychological considerations of the third. In the process, 
consciousness becomes aware of, and makes its adjustment to, the unconscious. 
Because the unconscious is both personal and collective, the individuation process 
is inherently religious. Psychological health is not possible without religiosity. 

Jung considered God and the Self to be archetypes. In some passages, he acknow- 
ledged that the two were indistinguishable. His concept of Self was adapted from 
the Hindu atman, which is one with God (Brahman) and equivalent to the mind 
and substance that are the cosmos. For Jung, the Self was an archetype that repre- 
sents the unity of consciousness and the unconscious, and individuation was not 
complete until the Self was realized and psychic integration achieved. 

Because Jung insisted that the 'God within' was a psychological phenomenon that 
was not to be confused with an external spiritual being intended by theologians, the 
case has sometimes been made that Jung psychologized religion and was ultimately 
concerned only with psychology. If so, Jung psychologized not only God, but the 
entire process of spiritual emergency. Analytic psychology may alternatively be seen 
as a psychologically informed practice of religion, whose rejection of theologians' 
God in favor of human self-deification is consistent with its roots in Romanticism 
and Western esotericism. 

Social psychology 

Academics' concern in the 1920s for a scientific psychology, engaged in quantifica- 
tion and independently duplicable results, led the discipline of psychology to replace 
mental experience with behaviour as its primary datum. Mental experience is acces- 
sible only through introspection and self-reports, both of which are unavoidably 
subjective. Behaviour can instead be measured, as it were objectively, by external 

Due to its methodological concerns, the discipline of psychology largely abandoned 
the study of religion upon the rise of behaviourism. Behaviourism was incapable of 
discussing any of the aspects of religion that were of keenest interest to other schools 
of research. Behaviourism could not ask: what are the subjective phenomena of reli- 
gion? why are people religious? what are the processes of becoming religious? what 
in religion is morbid, wholesome, and therapeutic? 

Academic psychologists were unable to engage in the study of religion until the 
monopoly of behaviourism was broken in the 1950s and the methods of social 
psychology gained prominence. Even today, however, the methodological self- 
limitations of academic psychologists makes their findings of limited interest to 
academic students of religion — and vice versa. Like academic psychology in general, 
social psychology uses its research methods to determine which data will and will 
not be examined. It is not prepared to adapt its research methods to whatever the 

178 Key approaches to the study of religions 

data may happen to be. Methodological purity, rather than practicality, remains the 
scientific standard. Social psychology addresses data that it alone generates (via ques- 
tionnaires, experiments, and so forth) and it fails to address data generated by 
academic students of religion. For these reasons, the social psychology of religion has 
not contributed significantly to the academic study of religion. Social psychologists 
nevertheless claim exclusive title to the name of 'science' and dismiss as unscientific 
all other approaches to the psychology of religion. 

The major question that academic psychologists ask of religion is: 'What aspects 
of religion can be quantified statistically and correlated with other religious statis- 
tics?' This preoccupation with measurable variations means that social psychologists 
end up addressing the implicit question, 'When, or under what circumstances, are 
people more and less religious?'. 

Because questions concerning measurable variations take for granted the definitions 
of whatever is being measured, the research program conceals two methodological 
flaws. As Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi has remarked, the social psychology of religion is a 
historical psychology. It is a historically and culturally limited body of findings con- 
cerning social behavior in the twentieth century, and almost entirely in the various 
societies of Western culture. Its findings cannot responsibly be considered universal. 
Nor are the findings reliable so far as they go. Most have been skewed by amateurism 
as well as by ethnocentricity. When social psychologists circulate a survey question- 
naire, the responses are limited both by the questions asked, and by the respondents' 
understanding of the questions. The scoring of experimental behaviour is similarly con- 
strained by the experimenters' subjectivity. Although several social psychologists are 
competent in the study of religion, the majority are not. Accordingly, many of the 
questions that social psychologists have asked, together with almost all of the answers 
that they have received on questionnaires, have been naive as well as ethnocentric. 
When, for example, the frequency of church attendance is used as a measurable index 
of religiosity, the findings are not merely limited to Christianity. They are skewed, in 
that they have to do with church attendance and not necessarily with religiosity. 

With the warning, then, that academic psychologists' findings on religion are as 
subjective, speculative, and as little 'scientific' as anyone else's, let us review some 
of the more interesting results. People are religious because they have been taught 
to be so. Parental religiosity is the most important influence. Most studies show a 
positive correlation between religiosity and self-esteem. Religiosity is associated with 
life satisfaction and subjective well-being. Religiosity can increase optimism and a 
sense of control. There is also a correlation with self-ideal conflicts and guilt feel- 
ings. Religiosity does not affect suicidal behaviours. In general, religiosity correlates 
positively with both subjective or self-rated health, and objective measures of phys- 
ical health. In some cases, however, religions cause physical harm, for example, 
through physical punishment, asceticism, and the denial of medical help. The findings 
regarding religion and mental health are inconclusive. 

Religion is socially cohesive. Religious people divorce less frequently, commit fewer 
crimes, work harder, and are more socially integrated than non-religious people. 
Religious people are more likely to be women, over the age of 50, and lower class. The 
greater religiosity of women may correlate with women's greater ease with being depen- 
dent, or with men's aversion to loving a masculine deity. Women report more reli- 
gious experiences than men do. Parapsychological experiences are more frequent for 

Psychology of religion 179 

people who are or have been unhappy and socially marginal; whereas mystical expe- 
riences correlate with positive affect and life satisfaction. Contact with the dead cor- 
relates with being widowed. On the other hand, there is a 99 percent probability that 
psychedelic drugs use will induce a religious experience in anyone, if the setting is 
engineered to promote one. Music, prayer and meditation, group worship, experiences 
of nature, emotional distress, and sensory deprivation are all less effective. 

Freud's claim that God is the exalted father has been examined repeatedly. Some 
studies have found that God is described as more similar to father, but others noted 
a similarity to mother. Still others noted a similarity to whichever was the preferred 
parent. Cultures that favour accepting, loving, and nurturing parenting styles tend 
to favor benevolent deities, while rejecting parenting styles correlate with malevo- 
lent deities. Catholics find God more maternal than Protestants do. 

There is a decline in religiosity during adolescence. Conversion experiences are 
nevertheless most frequent at 15 years of age. Conversion experiences correlate with 
socially isolated individuals and also with a strong emotional attraction to the pros- 
elytizer whose ideas and practices are accepted. Loss of religious faith or conversion 
from one religion to another is frequently associated with a rejection of parents. 
Conversion through coercion or 'mind control' is a fiction. 

Unmarried people are more active religiously than married people. Religious 
involvement declines in the third decade of life. Religious involvement increases 
after age 30 and continues into old age. 

Religious orientations 

The social psychologist Gordon Allport (1959) introduced a distinction between 
'extrinsic' and 'intrinsic' attitudes to religion. People for whom religion is a means 
to a social or other end regard it as extrinsic; whereas people for whom religion is 
an end in itself value it for its intrinsic character. Allport introduced the distinction 
to refine the statistical correlation of religiosity with prejudice, authoritarianism, 
dogmatism, and suggestibility. Allport argued that prejudice correlates with extrinsic 
religiosity, which prioritized the social functions of religion. Intrinsically religious 
people, by contrast, are not markedly prejudiced, because they treat seriously the 
commandment to love one's fellow as oneself. 

The modern liberal Protestant bias of Allport's analysis should be self-evident. The 
love commandment is not a universal teaching. Neither is its application to humanity 
in general, rather than to members of one's denomination or sect alone. In most 
eras, devout Jews and Christians have been intolerant of outsiders. Further, there is 
no such thing as religion for its own sake. Every religion promises a supernatural 
good, whether physical providence of health, wealth, and progeny, or advantageous 
metaphysical existence in the hereafter. Due to the ethnocentricity in Allport's argu- 
ment, a debate surrounds the question whether extrinsic and intrinsic are useful 
categories for the psychology of religion. Intrinsics enjoy better mental health, have 
less fear of death, and are more altruistic than other religious people; but it is unclear 
whether 'intrinsic' is the quality being measured. 

Batson and Ventis proposed a third basic orientation to religion that is additional 
to extrinsic and intrinsic. For many people, the contents of religious belief and prac- 
tice are not settled. Religion is instead a quest that involves uncertainty and on-going 

180 Key approaches to the study of religions 

discovery. The reality of a quest orientation has been questioned, however, because 
the data from which it was inferred may instead reflect the skepticism and consumerism 
of the university student population. 

Concluding reflections 

The humanistic psychologist David Bakan (1996) noted that psychology, in all of 
its major schools, has conceptualized human beings on the model of machines that 
are regulated exclusively by causal determinism. The psychological models abolished 
such older categories as origination, causativity, will, virtue and vice, heroism, 
cowardice, and so forth. As a consequence, what is currently being presented as 
psychology is inconsistent with our experience of ourselves. 

We today possess a variety of psychologies of people imagined as machines. They 
are not psychologies of people as we are, nor are they what psychology must someday 
become. All of our current psychologies are arbitrarily and artificially truncated. The 
portions omitted may very well be the most significant of all. Need we be surprised 
that a bridge to theology has yet to be found? 


Allport, Gordon W. 'Religion and prejudice'. Crane Review 2:1-1-10, 1959. Reprinted in 

Personality and Social Encounter: Selected Essays. Boston: Beacon Press, 1960, pp. 257-67. 
Arbman, Ernst. 'Mythic and religious thought'. Dragma: Martin P. Nilsson . . . Dedicatum. 

Lund, 1939. 
Assagioli, R. Transpersonal Development: The Dimension Beyond Psychosynthesis. London: 

HarperCollins, 1991. 
Bakan, David. 'Origination, self-determination, and psychology'. Journal of Humanistic 

Psychology 36(1): 9-20, 1996. 
Batson, C. D., Schoenrade, P. and Ventis, W. L. Religion and the Individual: A Social 

Psychological Perspective. London: Oxford University Press, 1997. 
Beit-Hallahmi, B. and Argyle, M. The Psychology of Religious Behaviour, Belief and Experience. 

London and New York: Routledge, 1997. 
Erikson, E. H. Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History. New York: W. W. 

Norton, 1958. 
Fowler, III, James W. Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for 

Meaning. San Francisco: Harper 6k Row, 1981. 
Freud, S. 'Group psychology and the analysis of the ego'. Standard Edition, 18: 69-143. London: 

Hogarth Press, 1955 [1921]. 
'Leonardo da Vinci and a memory of his childhood'. Standard Edition, 11: 63-137. 

London: Hogarth Press, 1957 [1910]. 

'Totem and taboo: Some points of agreement between the mental life of savages and 

neurotics'. Standard Edition, 13: 1-161. London: Hogarth Press, 1958 [1913]. 

'Obsessive acts and religious practices'. Standard Edition, 9: 117-27. London: Hogarth 

Press, 1959 [1907]. 

'The future of an illusion'. Standard Edition, 21: 5-56. London: Hogarth Press, 1961 


'Civilization and its discontents'. Standard Edition, 21: 64-145. London: Hogarth Press, 

1961 [1930]. 

'Moses and monotheism: three essays'. Standard Edition, 23: 6-137. London: Hogarth 

Press, 1964 [1939]. 

Psychology of religion 181 

The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, 24 vols. Ed. 

James Strachey, with Anna Freud, Alix Strachey, and Alan Tyson. London: Hogarth Press, 

1966. (Cited elsewhere as Standard Edition.) 
Grof, C. and Grof, S. The Stormy Search for the Self: A Guide to Personal Growth through 

Transformational Crisis. Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1990. 
James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. Reprinted 

New York: New American Library, 1958 [1902]. 
Jung, C. G. Psychology and Religion: West and East, 2nd edn. Trans. R. F. C. Hull. Princeton: 

Princeton University Press, 1969. 
Maslow, A. H. Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences. 1964; rpt. Harmondsworth: Penguin 

Books Ltd., 1976. 
Meissner, W. W. Psychoanalysis and Religious Experience. New Haven: Yale University Press, 

Merkur, D. Mystical Moments and Unitive Thinking. New York: State University of New York 

Press, 1999. 
Otto, Rudolf. The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-rational Factor in the Idea of the 

Divine and its Relation to the Rational, 2nd edn. Trans. John W. Harvey. London: Oxford 

University Press, 1950 [1917]. 

'The sensus numinis as the historical basis of religion'. Hibbert journal 30: 283-97, 

415-30, 1932. 

Pfister, Oscar. Some Applications of Psycho-Analysis. London: George Alen & Unwin Ltd, 1923. 

Christianity and Fear: A Study in History and in the Psychology and Hygiene of Religion. 

Trans. W. H. Johnston. London: George Allen 6k Unwin Ltd, 1948. 

Pruyser, P. W. Between Belief and Unbelief. New York: Harper & Row, 1974. 

Rizzuto, A.-M. The Birth of the Living God: A Psychoanalytic Study. Chicago: University of 

Chicago Press, 1979. 
Soderblom, Nathan. The Living God: Basal Forms of Personal Religion. Gifford Lectures 1931. 

London: Oxford University Press, 1933. 
Starbuck, Edwin Diller. The Psychology of Religion: An Empirical Study of the Growth of Religious 

Consciousness, 3rd edn. London, New York and Melbourne: Walter Scott Publishing Co., 

Ltd., 1911 [1899]. 

Chapter 10 

Phenomenology of religion 

Douglas Allen 

Scholars of religion often describe 'the phenomenology of religion' as one of the 
major twentieth-century disciplines and approaches to religion. Many readers prob- 
ably have some idea of what is involved in other disciplines and approaches to 
religion, such as 'the history of religion,' 'the anthropology of religion,' 'the psychology 
of religion,' 'the sociology of religion,' or 'the philosophy of religion,' even if some 
initial ideas may not be accurate. However, few readers will have any clue as to what 
the term 'phenomenology of religion' means or what this discipline and approach 

An introductory exercise 

The following exercise will help to illustrate the rationale for phenomenology of 
religion and several of its major characteristics. This rationale and the leading 
characteristics will then be described later in the chapter. 

Most societies and cultures have been described as 'religious.' Several billion human 
beings today describe themselves as 'religious.' Some of our most common language 
- emphasizing such terms as 'God,' 'soul,' 'heaven,' 'salvation,' 'sin,' and 'evil' — is 
'religious.' Even human beings who claim that they are not religious usually think 
that they know what it is to be 'religious' and hence they know what they reject. 

All scholarly approaches to religion, including phenomenology of religion, involve 
critical reflection. When we reflect critically on such common terms as 'religion' and 
'religious,' it becomes apparent that we usually use these terms in vague ways and 
that it is not precisely clear what we mean. This exercise is an attempt to begin 
such critical reflection as key to understanding phenomenology of religion. 

The exercise 

This exercise will work best for a class or other group of participants. If the group 
has more than 20 participants, divide it into smaller groups allowing for more indi- 
vidual participation. This exercise will also work well through an internet group 
communication. If you are alone, you can do the exercise by yourself, but it will 
work much better if you ask others for their responses. Each class or group should 
ask for one person to record the responses and summarize the results. 

Phenomenology of religion starts with the view that religion is based on religious 
experience. Human beings have experiences that they describe as religious. These 

Phenomenology of religion 183 

may be traditional or nontraditional. They may focus on inner feelings or outward 
forms and relations. They may be institutional and involve organized religion, or 
they may be highly personal and outside of any institutional framework. They may 
involve prayer, worship, rituals, nature, or cosmic experiences. Human beings who 
reject any personal identification with religion claim that they do not have such 
religious experiences. 

In this exercise, many or most of the participants will state that they are religious 
and that they have had religious experiences. Religious participants should be encour- 
aged to describe their religious experiences. What kind of an experience was it? What 
did it mean to the person who had such an experience? This should not be rushed. 
It may take time for participants to feel comfortable or sufficiently confident to share 
orally or in writing the nature of their religious experiences. It is important to be 
nonjudgmental and to emphasize that there is no right or wrong answer. It is 
important to maintain an atmosphere in which others, even when they personally 
disagree, are respectful and attempt to empathize with and understand what religious 
participants are expressing. 

As a variation, after all religious participants have had the opportunity to describe 
their religious experiences, the group may focus on respondents whose descriptions 
involve more traditional expressions involving 'God.' These religious participants 
may be asked to describe at greater length the nature of such an experience of God 
and what is intended by their use of the term God. As another variation, the group 
may focus on others who have not responded because they are not religious and 
have never had a religious experience. What are the characteristics that make all of 
their experiences secular or nonreligious and prevent them from describing their 
experiences as religious? 

After eliciting as many responses as possible, compile the results. Do not include 
or exclude responses based on agreement or disagreement. Summarize the major 
ways of describing religious experience, possibly the more restrictive descriptions in 
terms of experiences of God, and possibly the descriptions of the contrasting non- 
religious experiences. Do this before going on to the next section on results. 

Results of the exercise 

After compiling the results, reflect critically on them and analyze the data. Phenom- 
enology of religion involves certain kinds of critical reflection and analysis. 

When considering the major features expressed by religious participants, are there 
common characteristics in all or most of the descriptions of religious experience? 
What are they? Or are the descriptions so individualistic or subjective that there are 
no common characteristics, structures, or patterns? Do the descriptions allow us to 
detect certain defining or essential characteristics present in religious experiences and 
not present in nonreligious experiences? In reflecting on the tremendous variety of 
expressions of religious experiences, phenomenologists of religion claim that there 
are common general characteristics, structures, and patterns revealed only in religious 

Religious people do not believe that their religious experiences are nothing more 
than subjective psychological feelings. They believe that they have experienced 
some religious reality: the experience of X. Based on your descriptions of religious 

184 Key approaches to the study of religions 

experiences, what is the content or nature of X? How have participants described 
X? As God? In other terms? 

In this regard, phenomenology and phenomenology of religion embrace a doctrine 
of 'intentionality.' Intentionality emphasizes that all experience is experience of some- 
thing; experience points beyond itself to some intended referential meaning. Is there 
a common religious referent expressing the experienced religious meaning in your 
descriptions? If there is not one, essential, universal intended structure or meaning, 
are there several essential patterns and variations? 

Phenomenologists of religion focus on language. Although we start with religious 
experience, we never have direct access to the religious experiences of others. Instead 
we always have expressions of others as they try to describe their experiences and 
religious realities. When religious participants described their experiences, how were 
they using language ? Is there a specific or unique religious language ? If the intended 
religious referent or reality transcends human attempts at definition and conceptual 
analysis, does this mean that religion and religious experience cannot be studied in 
a critical, reflective, scholarly way? Phenomenology of religion analyzes both the 
limits and the power of language in revealing religious experience. 

In reflecting on the assembled data, here are several likely questions and concerns. 
On the one hand, are many of the descriptions of 'religion,' 'religious,' and 'religious 
experience' too narrow? This is not a criticism of highly personal, individual formu- 
lations. However, when we attempt to generalize and look for common features, we 
may find that formulations are too restrictive. It is likely that many religious partic- 
ipants will be uncomfortable with some descriptions and will conclude that their 
religious experience is something very different. For example, a Buddhist may not be 
comfortable identifying with certain God expressions. Even participants using God 
expressions usually feel that other God formulations have little to do with their 
experiences. A believer in God may be uncomfortable with certain personal anthro- 
pomorphic descriptions or with various traditional exclusivistic formulations. To the 
extent that participants reflect religious, ethnic, class, and other differences, there 
will be a great plurality and diversity in responses. From the perspective of phenom- 
enology of religion, which attempts to uncover universal or general structures and 
meanings, think about whether various expressions are too narrow and how they 
might be broadened. 

On the other hand, are some of the descriptions too broad? Are some of the 
descriptions true, but they are also true of experiences and beliefs that are not reli- 
gious? For example, some may describe religion as consisting of whatever is true or 
real for the experiencer. But don't nonreligious people also experience what they 
consider true or real? From the perspective of phenomenology of religion, our general 
descriptions must allow us to distinguish religious phenomena from nonreligious 
phenomena and analyze the religious as a specific kind of experience. 

Reflecting on the assembled data, do some of the descriptions reveal a clear ethno- 
centrism, expressing one's own background, socialization, and beliefs but not adequate 
to describe the religious experiences and phenomena of others? Do some of the 
descriptions reflect clear normative positions, based on specific value judgments, that 
do not do justice to religious others who do not accept such religious positions? 

This is not meant to criticize such ethnocentric and normative formulations. They 
are inadequate on phenomenological grounds. On theological, philosophical, or some 

Phenomenology of religion 185 

faith-based grounds, Christian fundamentalists may describe religious experience as 
consisting only in the experience of Jesus Christ, and they may argue that those who 
do not experience and accept this reality are doomed to Hell. Many Muslims may 
describe religious experience as submitting to Allah and recognizing Muhammad as 
the true Messenger, and they may argue that others are nonbelievers whose 
experiential referents are unreal or demonic. 

Phenomenology of religion, by way of contrast, attempts to avoid such narrow, 
overly broad, ethnocentric, and normative approaches. It attempts to describe reli- 
gious experiences with their religious phenomena as accurately as possible. In its 
descriptions, analysis, and interpretation of meaning, it attempts to suspend value 
judgments about what is real or unreal in experiences of others. It attempts to 
describe, understand, and do justice to the religious phenomena as they appear in 
religious experiences of others. 

The term 'phenomenology of religion' 

Although 'phenomenology' and 'phenomenology of religion' are not part of ordinary 
language, they are popular terms in various scholarly disciplines. Starting in the early 
twentieth century with its origins mainly in Germany, philosophical phenomenology 
became one of the major philosophical approaches. Phenomenology of religion 
emerged as one of the most influential modern disciplines and approaches to religion. 
Scholars sometimes identify phenomenology of religion as a discipline and approach 
within the general modern field of Religionswissenschaft, usually identified as the scien- 
tific or scholarly study of religion. We shall use the more common term 'religious stud- 
ies' to identify modern scholarly approaches to religion that include phenomenology 
as well as other approaches to religion grounded in history, sociology, anthropology, 
sociology, psychology, linguistics, cognitive science, and other modern disciplines. 

It is possible to differentiate four groups of scholars who use the term phenome- 
nology of religion. First, there are works in which the term means nothing more than 
an investigation of the phenomena or observable objects, facts, and events of reli- 
gion. Second, from the Dutch scholar P. D. Chantepie de la Saussaye to such 
contemporary scholars as the Scandinavian historians of religions Geo Widengren 
and Ake Hultkrantz, phenomenology of religion means the comparative study and 
the classification of different types of religious phenomena. 

Third, numerous scholars, such as W. Brede Kristensen, Gerardus van der Leeuw, 
Joachim Wach, C. Jouco Bleeker, Mircea Eliade, and Jacques Waardenburg, identify 
phenomenology of religion as a specific branch, discipline, or method within 
Religionswissenschaft or religious studies. This is where the most significant contributions 
of phenomenology of religion to the study of religion have been made. 

Fourth, there are scholars whose phenomenology of religion is influenced by philo- 
sophical phenomenology. A few scholars, such as Max Scheler and Paul Ricoeur, 
explicitly identify much of their work with philosophical phenomenology. Others, 
such as Rudolf Otto, van der Leeuw, and Eliade, use a phenomenological method 
and are influenced, at least partially, by phenomenological philosophy. There are also 
influential theological approaches, as seen in the works of Friedrich Schleiermacher, 
Paul Tillich, and Jean-Luc Marion, that utilize phenomenology of religion as a stage 
in the formulation of theology. 

186 Key approaches to the study of religions 

The terms phenomenon and phenomenology are derived from the Greek word phen- 
omenon (that which shows itself, or that which appears). The term phenomenology 
has both philosophical and nonphilosophical roots. 

One finds nonphilosophical phenomenologies in the natural sciences in which 
scientists want to emphasize the descriptive, as contrasted with the explanatory, 
conception of their science. A second nonphilosophical use of phenomenology 
appears in the descriptive, systematic, comparative study of religions in which scholars 
assemble groups of religious phenomena in order to disclose their major aspects and 
to formulate their typologies. 

In the late eighteenth century, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant devoted 
considerable analysis to 'phenomena' as the data of experience, things that appear 
to and are constructed by human minds. Such phenomena, which Kant distinguishes 
from 'noumena,' or 'things-in-themselves' independent of our knowing minds, can 
be studied rationally, scientifically, and objectively. For example, I can give a causal 
explanation of why the frisbee was thrown at a certain direction, velocity, and 
distance. However, I cannot give the same kind of spatial, temporal, causal analysis 
to explain noumena such as 'God.' A similar distinction between religious phenomena 
as appearances and religious reality-in-itself, which is beyond phenomenology, is 
found in the descriptive phenomenologies of many phenomenologists of religion. 

Of all the uses of phenomenology by philosophers before the twentieth-century 
phenomenological movement, the term is most frequently identified with the German 
philosopher G. W. F. Hegel and his Phenomenology of Spirit. Hegel was determined 
to overcome Kant's phenomena-noumena bifurcation. Phenomena are actual stages 
of knowledge — manifestations in the development of Spirit — evolving from unde- 
veloped consciousness of mere sense experience and culminating in forms of absolute 
knowledge. Phenomenology is the science by which the mind becomes aware of the 
development of Spirit and comes to know its essence — that is, Spirit as it is in itself 
— through a study of its appearances and manifestations. 

This background led to two distinct senses of phenomenology that have shaped 
phenomenology of religion. On the one hand, there is the older, wider sense of the 
term as any descriptive study of a given subject matter of observable phenomena. 
On the other hand, there is also a narrower twentieth-century sense of the term as 
a philosophical approach utilizing a phenomenological method. 

Some background to the phenomenology of religion 

Before turning to philosophical phenomenology and then a more detailed examina- 
tion of the phenomenology of religion, it may be helpful to examine some of the 
context within which they originated and developed. By having a sense of other 
approaches to religion and what phenomenology was reacting against, the rationale 
for the phenomenology of religion becomes more evident. 

Phenomenologists of religion, with their emphasis on the religious experience, recog- 
nize that being religious is not identical with studying religion. There is a first, primary, 
or foundational level of religious experience for the religious believer. Phenomenology 
and other scholarly approaches always involve some distance between the scholar and 
the subject matter necessary for critical reflection, analysis, interpretation, and attempts 

Phenomenology of religion 187 

at verifying one's findings. Scholars disagree on possible relations between being reli- 
gious and studying religion. However, all agree that scholarly study is not identical 
with being religious or having religious experience. 

Scholars have attempted to accumulate religious data and interpret the meaning 
of religious phenomena for thousands of years. Much of this arose from exposure to 
new religious phenomena from expeditions of explorers, military and political 
conquests, religious missionary work, and economic exploitation. Earlier studies were 
usually shaped by self-serving, apologetic, religious, political, and economic assump- 
tions and judgments. Comparative religion often became competitive religion in 
which scholars studied others in order to demonstrate the superiority of their own 
religion or culture. Rarely did scholars attempt to understand religion through the 
eyes of the other. From the perspective of phenomenology of religion, these earlier 
scholarly studies did not do justice to the religious phenomena of the religious other. 

The origin of the modern scholarly study of religion is usually traced to the nine- 
teenth century and especially to the influences of the Enlightenment. These modern 
scholars of religion were determined to free their approaches and disciplines from 
pre-modern investigations with their subjective and normative assumptions and judg- 
ments, their dependence on supernatural and other external authority, and their lack 
of concern for rigorous standards of objective knowledge. By insisting on unbiased 
impartial investigations, the careful accumulation of data or facts, and the authority 
of human reason to analyze and interpret the meaning of phenomena, modern 
scholars had confidence in the human capacity to make progress and arrive at 
objective, intersubjectively verifiable knowledge. 

From the perspective of phenomenology of religion, these modern scholarly studies 
also were limited and did not do justice to the religious phenomena of the religious 
other. Built into their scientific or scholarly studies were all kinds of unacknow- 
ledged normative assumptions and judgments. For example, most of these philolo- 
gists, ethnologists, and other modern scholars of religion adopted a positivistic 
view of empirical observable 'facts' and 'objective' knowledge. Phenomenologists of 
religion assert that the scale or method makes the difference and our approach 
must be commensurate with the nature of our subject matter. An approach yielding 
factual, objective knowledge when dissecting a worm in a laboratory may not provide 
objective knowledge about religious experience. To dismiss religious experience as 
subjective and not factual is not very helpful if we are trying to gain a greater 
understanding of religious phenomena. 

To provide a second illustration, most nineteenth-century scholars of religion 
adopted from Darwin a notion of evolution and then applied it to language, culture, 
religion, and other subject matter. Typically, they arranged their religious data in an 
assumed, predetermined, unilinear framework, starting with the lowest and most unde- 
veloped stage of 'primitive' religions and evolving to the evolutionary apex of Western 
monotheism and especially Christianity. In some scholarly frameworks, human beings 
evolved beyond all religion to a higher rational, scientific stage of human develop- 
ment. From the perspective of the phenomenology of religion, imposing such an 
outside, normative evolutionary scheme on the religious phenomena prevents us 
from accurately describing and understanding the meaning of the phenomena for the 
religious other. 

188 Key approaches to the study of religions 

Scholarly approaches have been highly normative, applying their standards to make 
disciplinary value judgments. The following illustration will make this point and the 
contrasting phenomenological approach. 

Human beings repeatedly claim that they have 'experiences of God.' Psychologists 
of religion attempt to analyze and explain such experiences and their religious 
phenomena in terms of some psychological account. Sociologists of religion analyze 
and explain such phenomena in terms of social needs, functions, and structures. From 
the perspective of phenomenology of religion, these approaches provide psychological 
and sociological explanations, but questions still remain involving the interpretation 
of religious meaning. 

Philosophers of religion also ask normative philosophical questions. What are the 
meaning, truth, and reality in propositions claiming to experience God? Can we use 
reason to prove the existence of such a God? Can we reconcile the existence of such 
a God with so much evil in the world? 

Phenomenologists of religion react against such normative approaches to religion. 
Human beings claim to have experiences of God. What does it mean to live such 
a religious existence? What are the meaning and significance of such experienced 
phenomena? Other approaches, with their assumed norms and methodological frame- 
work, do not do justice to the religious phenomena of others. How can we suspend 
our own assumptions and value judgments, enter into the religious world of the reli- 
gious believer, describe the religious phenomena and interpret their religious meaning 
as accurately as possible? 

Philosophical phenomenology 

As one of the major schools, movements, or approaches in twentieth-century phil- 
osophy, phenomenology takes many forms. One can distinguish, for example, the 'tran- 
scendental phenomenology' of Edmund Husserl, the 'existential phenomenology' of 
Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and the 'hermeneutic phenomenology' 
of Martin Heidegger and Paul Ricoeur. 

The phenomenological movement 

The primary aim of philosophical phenomenology is to investigate and become 
directly aware of phenomena that appear in immediate experience, and thereby to 
allow the phenomenologist to describe the essential structures of these phenomena. 
In doing so, phenomenology attempts to free itself from unexamined presuppositions, 
to avoid causal and other explanations, to utilize a method that allows it to describe 
that which appears, and to intuit or decipher essential meanings. 

Husserl is usually identified as the founder and most influential philosopher of the 
phenomenological movement. The earliest phenomenologists worked at several 
German universities, especially at Gottingen and Munich. Outside of Husserl's pre- 
dominant influence, other significant German phenomenologists include Scheler and 
Heidegger. Phenomenology remained an overwhelmingly German philosophy until 
the 1930s when the center of the movement began to shift to France. Leading French 
phenomenologists include Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Gabriel Marcel, and Ricoeur. 

Phenomenology of religion 189 

Characteristics of philosophical phenomenology 

One may delineate five characteristics of philosophical phenomenology that have 
particular relevance for the phenomenology for religion. 

Descriptive nature Phenomenology aims to be a rigorous, descriptive science, disci- 
pline, or approach. The phenomenological slogan 'Zu den Sachen!' ('To the things 
themselves!') expresses the determination to turn away from philosophical theories 
and concepts toward the direct intuition and description of phenomena as they appear 
in immediate experience. Phenomenology attempts to describe the nature of 
phenomena, the way appearances manifest themselves, and the essential structures 
at the foundation of human experience. As contrasted with most schools of phil- 
osophy, which have assumed that the rational alone is real and which have a 
philosophical preoccupation with the rational faculties and with conceptual analysis, 
phenomenology focuses on accurately describing the totality of phenomenal mani- 
festations in human experience. A descriptive phenomenology, attempting to avoid 
reductionism and often insisting on the phenomenological epoche (see pp. 189-90, 
198-9), describes the diversity, complexity, and richness of experience. 

Antireductionism Phenomenological antireductionism is concerned with freeing people 
from uncritical preconceptions that prevent them from becoming aware of the speci- 
ficity and diversity of phenomena, thus allowing them to broaden and deepen 
immediate experience and provide more accurate descriptions of this experience. 
Husserl attacked various forms of reductionism, such as 'psychologism,' which 
attempts to derive the laws of logic from psychological laws and, more broadly, to 
reduce all phenomena to psychological phenomena. In opposing the oversimplifica- 
tions of traditional empiricism and other forms of reductionism, phenomenologists 
aim to deal faithfully with phenomena as phenomena and to become aware of what 
phenomena reveal in their full intentionality. 

Intentionality A subject always 'intends' an object, and intentionality refers to the 
property of all consciousness as consciousness of something. All acts of conscious- 
ness are directed toward the experience of something, the intentional object. For 
Husserl, who took the term from his teacher Franz Brentano, intentionality was a 
way of describing how consciousness constitutes phenomena. In order to identify, 
describe, and interpret the meaning of phenomena, phenomenologists must be atten- 
tive to the intentional structures of their data; to the intentional structures of 
consciousness with their intended referents and meanings. 

Bracketing For many phenomenologists, the antireductionist insistence on the irre- 
ducibility of the intentional immediate experience entails the adoption of a 'phenom- 
enological epoche.'' This Greek term literally means 'abstention' or 'suspension of 
judgment' and is often defined as a method of 'bracketing.' It is only by bracketing 
the uncritically accepted 'natural world,' by suspending beliefs and judgments based 
on an unexamined 'natural standpoint,' that the phenomenologist can become aware 
of the phenomena of immediate experience and can gain insight into their essential 

190 Key approaches to the study of religions 

structures. Sometimes the epoche is formulated in terms of the goal of a completely 
presuppositionless science or philosophy, but most phenomenologists have interpreted 
such bracketing as the goal of freeing the phenomenologist from unexamined presup- 
positions, or of rendering explicit and clarifying such presuppositions, rather than 
completely denying their existence. The phenomenological epoche is not simply 
'performed' by phenomenologists; it must involve some method of self-criticism and 
intersubjective testing allowing insight into structures and meanings. 

Eidetic vision The intuition of essences, often described as 'eidetic vision' or 'eidetic 
reduction,' is related to the Greek term eidos, which Husserl adopted from its Platonic 
meaning to designate 'universal essences.' Such essences express the 'whatness' of 
things, the necessary and invariant features of phenomena that allow us to recognize 
phenomena as phenomena of a certain kind. 

For all of their differences, the overwhelming majority of phenomenologists have 
upheld a descriptive phenomenology that is antireductionist, involves phenomeno- 
logical bracketing, focuses on intentionality, and aims at insight into essential 
structures and meanings. The following is a brief formulation of a general phenom- 
enological procedure for gaining insight into such essential structures and meanings. 

In the 'intuition of essences' (Wesensschau) , the phenomenologist begins with 
particular data: specific phenomena as expressions of intentional experiences. The 
central aim of the phenomenological method is to disclose the essential structure 
embodied in the particular data. 

One gains insight into meaning by the method of 'free variation.' After assem- 
bling a variety of particular phenomena, the phenomenologist searches for the 
invariant core that constitutes the essential meaning of the phenomena. The 
phenomena, subjected to a process of free variation, assume certain forms that are 
considered to be accidental or inessential in the sense that the phenomenologist can 
go beyond the limits imposed by such forms without destroying the basic character 
or intentionality of one's data. For example, the variation of a great variety of reli- 
gious phenomena may disclose that the unique structures of monotheism do not 
constitute the essential core or universal structure of all religious experience. 

The phenomenologist gradually sees that phenomena assume forms that are 
regarded as essential in the sense that one cannot go beyond or remove such struc- 
tures without destroying the basic 'whatness' or intentionality of the data. For 
example, free variation might reveal that certain intentional structures of 'transcen- 
dence' constitute an invariant core of religious experience. When the universal 
essence is grasped, the phenomenologist achieves the eidetic intuition or the fulfilled 

Most phenomenologists who use a method of Wesensschau propose that historical 
phenomena have a kind of priority, that one must substitute for Husserl's purely 
imaginary variation an actual variation of historical data, and that particular 
phenomena are not constituted by an individual but are the source of one's consti- 
tution and judgment. 

The majority of philosophical phenomenologists have not focused on religious 
phenomena, but the vocabulary of philosophical phenomenology and, in some cases, 
its methodology have greatly influenced the phenomenology of religion. 

Phenomenology of religion 191 

The phenomenology of religion 

The modern scholarly study of religion arose largely as a product of the rational and sci- 
entific attitude of the Enlightenment. The first major figure in this discipline was F. Max 
Miiller (1823-1900), who intended Religionswissenschaft to be a descriptive, objective 
science free from the normative theological and philosophical studies of religion. 

P. D. Chantepie de la Saussaye (1848-1920) is sometimes considered the founder 
of phenomenology of religion as a special discipline of classification. Phenomenology 
of religion occupied an intermediary position for him between history and philosophy 
and is a descriptive, comparative approach collecting and grouping religious phenom- 
ena. The Dutch historian C. P. Tiele considered phenomenology the first stage of 
the philosophical part of the science of religion. 

Many scholars of religion point to the phenomenology of religion's sense of gener- 
ality, with its approach invariably characterized as systematic. For Widengren, the 
phenomenology of religion aims at a coherent account and provides the systematic 
synthesis of the historical phenomena of religion. 

Scholars, such as the Italian historian of religions Raffaele Pettazzoni, view 
phenomenology and history as two complementary aspects of the integral science of 
religion. Phenomenology provides a deeper understanding of the religious meaning 
of the historical data. 

Major phenomenologists of religion 

What follows are brief formulations of the approaches and contributions of seven 
influential phenomenologists of religion: Max Scheler, W. Brede Kristensen, Rudolf 
Otto, Gerardus van der Leeuw, C. Jouco Bleeker, Mircea Eliade, and Ninian Smart. 
Included are criticisms of three influential phenomenologists of religion: Otto, van 
der Leeuw, and Eliade. 

Max Scheler Of the major philosophers who founded and developed philosophical 
phenomenology, Scheler (1874-1928) had the greatest focus on religion. In many 
ways, he can be considered the most significant early phenomenologist of religion. 
Influenced by Brentano, Husserl, Kant, Nietzsche, Dilthey, and Bergson, Scheler 
developed his own original phenomenological approach. His books On the Eternal in 
Man and Formalism in Ethics and Non-Formal Ethics of Values bring out his phenom- 
enological method, his description and analysis of sympathy, love, and other values, 
and key characteristics of his phenomenology of religion. 

Reminiscent of Schleiermacher and Otto, Scheler focused on a phenomenological 
description and analysis of the unique religious human mode of experience and 
feeling; the being of the human being for whom structures and essences of religious 
values are presented to consciousness. Phenomenological disclosure, focusing on what 
is 'given' to consciousness as the Absolute, the Divine Person, or God, is not achieved 
through reason but only through the love of God orienting one toward experiential 
realization of the Holy. 

Philosophical phenomenologists of religion are greatly indebted to Scheler. The 
turn to religion in some of philosophical phenomenology and other forms of conti- 
nental philosophy at the end of the twentieth century often exhibit characteristics 
similar to Scheler's phenomenological orientation. 

192 Key approaches to the study of religions 

W. 8rede Kristensen Much of the field has been dominated by a Dutch tradition of 
phenomenology of religion. Kristensen (1867-1953) illustrates an extreme formula- 
tion of the descriptive approach within phenomenology. Phenomenology is a 
systematic and comparative approach that is descriptive and not normative. In 
opposing the widespread positivist and evolutionist approaches to religion, Kristensen 
attempted to integrate historical knowledge of the facts with phenomenological 
'empathy' and 'feeling' for the data in order to grasp the 'inner meaning' and religious 
values in various texts. 

The phenomenologist must accept the faith of the believers as the sole 'religious 
reality.' In order to achieve phenomenological understanding, scholars must avoid 
imposing their own value judgments on the experiences of believers and must assume 
that the believers are completely right. In other words, the primary focus of phenom- 
enology is the description of how believers understand their own faith. One must 
respect the absolute value that believers ascribe to their faith. An understanding of 
this religious reality is always approximate or relative, since one can never experi- 
ence the religion of others exactly as the believers experience it. After describing 
the belief of believers, scholars may classify phenomena according to essential types 
and make comparative evaluations. But all investigations into essence and evalua- 
tions of phenomena entail value judgments by the interpreter and are beyond the 
limits of descriptive phenomenology. 

Rudolf Otto Two interdependent methodological contributions made by Rudolf Otto 
(1869-1937) deserve emphasis: his experiential approach, which involves the 
phenomenological description of the universal, essential structure of religious experi- 
ence, and his antireductionism, which respects the unique, irreducible, 'numinous' 
quality of all religious experience. 

In Das Heilige (translated as The Idea of the Holy), Otto presents what is probably 
the best-known phenomenological account of religious experience. Otto describes 
the universal 'numinous' element as a unique a priori category of meaning and value. 
By numen and numinous, Otto means the concept of 'the holy' minus its moral and 
rational aspects. By emphasizing this nonmoral, nonrational aspect of religion, he 
isolates the 'overplus of meaning' beyond the rational and conceptual. This consti- 
tutes the universal essence of religious experience. Since such a unique nonrational 
experience cannot be defined or conceptualized, symbolic and analogical descriptions 
are meant to evoke within the reader the experience of the holy. The religious experi- 
ence of the numinous, as an a priori structure of consciousness, can be reawakened 
or recognized by means of our innate sense of the numinous. 

In this regard, Otto formulates a universal phenomenological structure of religious 
experience in which the phenomenologist can distinguish autonomous religious phe- 
nomena by their numinous aspect and can organize and analyze specific religious 
manifestations. He points to our 'creature feeling' of absolute dependence in the expe- 
riential presence of the holy. This sui generis religious experience is described as the 
experience of the 'wholly other' that is qualitatively unique and transcendent. 

This insistence on the unique a priori quality of religious experience points to 
Otto's antireductionism. Otto rejects the one-sidedly intellectualistic and rational- 
istic bias of most interpretations and the reduction of religious phenomena to the 
interpretive schema of linguistic analysis, anthropology, sociology, psychology, and 

Phenomenology of religion 193 

various historicist approaches. This emphasis on the autonomy of religion, with the 
need for a unique, autonomous approach that is commensurate with interpreting 
the meaning of irreducibly religious phenomena, is generally accepted by major 
phenomenologists of religion. 

Various interpreters have criticized Otto's phenomenological approach for being 
too narrowly conceived. According to these critics, Otto's approach focuses on nonra- 
tional aspects of certain mystical and other 'extreme' experiences, but it is not 
sufficiently comprehensive to interpret the diversity and complexity of religious data, 
nor is it sufficiently concerned with the specific historical and cultural forms of reli- 
gious phenomena. Critics also object to the a priori nature of Otto's project and 
influences of personal, Christian, theological, and apologetic intentions on his 

Gerardus van der Leeuw In his Comparative Religion, Eric J. Sharpe writes that 'between 
1925 and 1950, the phenomenology of religion was associated almost exclusively 
with the name of the Dutch scholar Gerardus van der Leeuw (1890—1950), and with 
his book Phdnomenologie der Religion.' Van der Leeuw acknowledges that his phenom- 
enology is strongly influenced by Wilhelm Dilthey's formulations on hermeneutics 
and 'understanding' (Verstehen). 

In Phdnomenologie der Religion (translated as Religion in Essence and Manifestation), 
van der Leeuw defines the assumptions, concepts, and stages of his phenomenolog- 
ical approach. The phenomenologist must respect the specific intentionality of 
religious phenomena and simply describe the phenomenon as 'what appears into 
view.' The phenomenon is given in the mutual relations between subject and object; 
that is, its 'entire essence' is given in its appearance to someone. 

Van der Leeuw proposed a subtle and complex phenomenological-psychological 
method of systematic introspection, going far beyond a descriptive phenomenology. 
This involves 'the interpolation of the phenomenon into our lives' as necessary for 
understanding religious phenomena. Phenomenology must be combined with histor- 
ical research, which precedes phenomenological understanding and provides the 
phenomenologist with sufficient data. Special note may be taken of van der Leeuw's 
emphasis on the religious aspect of 'power' as the basis of every religious form and 
as defining what is religious. Phenomenology describes how humans have religious 
experiences in relating to such extraordinary power. 

Influences from van der Leeuw's own Christian point of view are often central to 
his analysis of the phenomenological method for gaining understanding of religious 
structures and meanings. For example, he submits that 'all understanding rests upon 
self-surrendering love.' Van der Leeuw considered himself a theologian and asserted 
that phenomenology of religion leads to both anthropology and theology. Numerous 
scholars have concluded that much of his phenomenology of religion must be 
interpreted in theological terms. 

Critics, while often expressing admiration for Religion in Essence and Manifestation 
as an extraordinary collection of religious data, offer many objections to van der 
Leeuw's phenomenology of religion: his phenomenological approach is based on 
numerous theological and metaphysical assumptions and value judgments; it is often 
too subjective and highly speculative; and it neglects the historical and cultural 
context of religious phenomena and is of little value for empirically based research. 

194 Key approaches to the study of religions 

C. Jouco 8/eeker Bleeker (1898-1983) distinguished three types of phenomenology 
of religion: the descriptive phenomenology that restricts itself to the systematization 
of religious phenomena, the typological phenomenology that formulates the different 
types of religion, and the specific sense of phenomenology that investigates the essen- 
tial structures and meanings of religious phenomena. In terms of this more specific 
sense, phenomenology of religion has a double meaning: it is an independent science 
that creates monographs and handbooks, such as van der Leeuw's Religion in Essence 
and Manifestation and Eliade's Patterns in Comparative Religion, but it is also a schol- 
arly method that utilizes such principles as the phenomenological epoche and eidetic 
vision. Although Bleeker frequently used technical terms borrowed from Husserl and 
philosophical phenomenology, he claimed that they were used by phenomenology of 
religion in only a figurative sense. 

According to Bleeker, phenomenology of religion combines a critical attitude and 
concern for accurate descriptions with a sense of empathy for phenomena. It is an 
empirical science without philosophical aspirations, and it should distinguish its activ- 
ities from those of philosophical phenomenology and of anthropology. Phenomenology 
of religion systematizes historical facts in order to understand their religious meaning. 

Bleeker analyzes phenomenology of religion as inquiry into three dimensions of 
religious phenomena: theoria, logos, and entelecheia. The theoria of phenomena discloses 
the essence and significance of the empirical facts. The logos of phenomena provides 
a sense of objectivity by showing that hidden structures 'are built up according to 
strict inner laws' and that religion 'always possesses a certain structure with an inner 
logic' The entelecheia of phenomena reveals the dynamics and development of reli- 
gious life as 'an invincible, creative and self-regenerating force.' Phenomenology, it 
is frequently stated, abstracts from historical change and presents a rather static view 
of essential structures and meanings. The phenomenologist of religion must also study 
the dynamics and development of religious phenomena. 

Mircea Eliade As one of the major interpreters of religion, symbol, and myth, the 
Romanian Eliade (1907-1986) submits that religion 'refers to the experience of the 
sacred.' The phenomenologist works with historical documents expressing hieropha- 
nies, or manifestations of the sacred, and attempts to decipher the existential situation 
and religious meaning expressed through the data. The sacred and the profane express 
'two modes of being in the world,' and religion always entails the attempt of reli- 
gious beings to transcend the relative, historical, temporal, 'profane' world by 
experiencing a 'superhuman' sacred world of transcendent values. 

Eliade's phenomenology of religion includes many morphological studies of different 
kinds of religious symbolism; interpretations of the structure and function of myth, 
with the cosmogonic myth and other creation myths functioning as exemplary models; 
treatments of rituals, such as those of initiation, as reenacting sacred mythic models; 
structural analysis of sacred space, sacred time, and sacred history; and studies of 
different types of religious experience, such as yoga, shamanism, alchemy, and other 
'archaic' phenomena. 

Three key methodological principles underlying Eliade's phenomenological ap- 
proach are his assumption of the 'irreducibility of the sacred,' his emphasis on the 
'dialectic of the sacred' as the universal structure of sacralization, and his uncovering 
of the structural systems of religious symbols that constitute the framework in terms 
of which he interprets religious meaning. 

Phenomenology of religion 195 

The assumption of the irreducibility of the religious is a form of phenomenolog- 
ical epoche. In attempting to understand and describe the meaning of religious 
phenomena, the phenomenologist must utilize an antireductionist method commen- 
surate with the nature of the data. Only a religious frame of reference or 'scale' of 
interpretation does not distort the specific, irreducible religious intentionality 
expressed in the data. 

The universal structure of the dialectic of the sacred provides essential criteria for 
distinguishing religious from nonreligious phenomena. There is always a sacred- 
profane dichotomy and separation of the hierophanic object, such as a particular 
mountain or tree or person, since this is the medium through which the sacred is man- 
ifested; the sacred, which expresses transcendent structures and meanings, paradoxi- 
cally limits itself by incarnating itself in something ordinarily finite, temporal, and 
historical; the sacred, in its dialectical movement of disclosure and revelation, always 
conceals and camouflages itself; and the religious person, in resolving existential crises, 
evaluates and chooses the sacred as powerful, ultimate, normative, and meaningful. 

Among the characteristics of symbols are: (1) their 'logic,' which allows various 
symbols to fit together to form coherent symbolic systems; (2) their 'multivalence,' 
through which they express simultaneously a number of structurally coherent 
meanings not evident on the level of immediate experience; and (3) their 'function 
of unification,' by which they integrate heterogeneous phenomena into a whole 
or a system. These autonomous, universal, coherent systems of symbols provide 
the phenomenological framework for Eliade's interpretation of religious meaning. For 
example, he interprets the meaning of a religious phenomenon associated with 
the sun or moon by reintegrating it within its solar or lunar structural system of 
symbolic associations. 

Although Eliade was extremely influential, many scholars ignore or are hostile to 
his history and phenomenology of religion. The most frequent criticism is that Eliade 
is methodologically uncritical, often presenting sweeping, arbitrary, subjective gener- 
alizations not based upon specific historical and empirical data. Critics also charge 
that his approach is influenced by various normative judgments and an assumed onto- 
logical position that is partial to a religious, antihistorical mode of being and to 
certain Eastern and archaic phenomena. 

Nin'tan Smart Born in Cambridge, England to Scottish parents, Smart (1927-2001) 
had a major impact on religious studies. He was committed to phenomenology as 
the best way to study religion. His phenomenology of religion avoids what were two 
dominant approaches to religion: (1) ethnocentric, normative, especially Christian, 
theological approaches in the study of religion; and (2) normative philosophical 
approaches with their exclusive focus on belief and conceptual analysis to the exclu- 
sion of other dimensions of religious phenomena. Smart was capable of technical 
scholarly analysis, but he is probably better known as a popularizer in his study of 
religion, as seen in The Religious Experience of Mankind. He believed that profound 
insights can be presented in simple understandable language and ordinary phenom- 
enological categories. 

Smart emphasized many points that became easily recognizable and widely accepted 
in phenomenology of religion and other approaches to religious phenomena. He 
emphasized suspension of one's own value judgments and the need for phenomeno- 

196 Key approaches to the study of religions 

logical empathy in understanding and describing religious phenomena of others. He 
endorsed a liberal humanistic approach that upholds pluralism and diversity. In 
Smart's phenomenological approach, one recognizes that religion expresses many 
dimensions of human experience. Such an approach is 'polymethodic,' multiper- 
spectival, comparative, and cross-cultural. The phenomenologist of religion needs to 
take seriously the contextual nature of diverse religious phenomena; to ask questions, 
engage in critical dialogue, and maintain an open-ended investigation of religion; 
and to recognize that religions express complex, multidimensional, interconnected 
worldviews. This focus on religions in terms of worldview analysis leads to the 
contemporary interest in the globalization of religion and global pluralism. 

Characteristics of phenomenology of religion 

The following features, some of which have already been mentioned, are character- 
istic of much of phenomenology of religion: a comparative, systematic, empirical, 
historical, descriptive discipline and approach; antireductionist claims and its 
autonomous nature; adoption of philosophical phenomenological notions of inten- 
tionality and epoche; insistence on empathy, sympathetic understanding, and religious 
commitment; and claim to provide insight into essential structures and meanings. 

Comparative and systematic approach There is widespread agreement that phenome- 
nology of religion is a very general, comparative approach concerned with classifying 
and systematizing religious phenomena. Phenomenologists are able to gain insight 
into essential structures and meanings only after comparing a large number of 
documents expressing a great diversity of religious phenomena. 

Empirical approach Bleeker, Eliade, and most phenomenologists of religion insist that 
they use an empirical approach that is free from a priori assumptions and judgments. 
Such an empirical approach, often described as 'scientific' and 'objective,' begins by 
collecting religious documents and then goes on to describe just what the empirical 
data reveal. 

One of the most frequent attacks on phenomenology of religion is that it is not 
empirically based and that it is therefore arbitrary, subjective, and unscientific. Critics 
charge that the universal structures and meanings are not found in the empirical 
data and that the phenomenological discoveries are not subject to empirical tests of 

Historical approach Phenomenologists of religion usually maintain not only that their 
approach must cooperate with and complement historical research but also that 
phenomenology of religion is profoundly historical. All religious data are historical; 
no phenomena may be understood outside their history. The phenomenologist must 
be aware of the specific historical, cultural, and socioeconomic contexts within which 
religious phenomena appear. 

Critics charge that phenomenology of religion is not historical, both in terms of 
a phenomenological method that neglects the specific historical and cultural context 
and with regard to the primacy — methodologically and even ontologically — it grants 
to nonhistorical and nontemporal universal structures. 

Phenomenology of religion 197 

Descriptive approach Almost all phenomenologists of religion today do not restrict 
themselves to mere description of religious phenomena. While cognizant of 
Kristensen's concerns about the subjective nature of much past scholarship in which 
interpreters filtered data through their own assumptions and value judgments, 
phenomenologists go far beyond the severe methodological restrictions of his 
descriptive phenomenology. 

And yet these same phenomenologists invariably classify their discipline and 
approach as a descriptive phenomenology of religion. They claim to utilize a descrip- 
tive approach and see their classifications, typologies, and structures as descriptive. 
Sometimes phenomenologists of religion distinguish the collection and description 
of religious data, which is objective and scientific, from the interpretation of meaning, 
which is at least partially subjective and normative. 

Antireductionism Phenomenologists oppose reductionism, which imposes uncritical 
preconceptions and unexamined judgments on phenomena, in order to deal with 
phenomena simply as phenomena and to provide more accurate descriptions of just 
what the phenomena reveal. 

More than any other approach within the modern study of religion, phenomenol- 
ogy of religion insists that investigators approach religious data as phenomena that are 
fundamentally and irreducibly religious. Otto, Eliade, and others defend their strong 
antireductionism by criticizing past reductionist approaches. Phenomenologists criti- 
cize the reductions of religious data to fit nonreligious perspectives, such as those of 
sociology, psychology, or economics. Such reductionisms, it is argued, destroy the speci- 
ficity, complexity, and irreducible intentionality of religious phenomena. In attempt- 
ing sympathetically to understand the experience of the other, the phenomenologist 
must respect the 'original' religious intentionality expressed in the data. 

Autonomy Directly related to the antireductionist claim of the irreducibility of the 
religious is the identification of phenomenology of religion as an autonomous disci- 
pline and approach. If there are certain irreducible modes by which religious 
phenomena are given, then one must utilize a specific method of understanding that 
is commensurate with the religious nature of the subject matter. One must provide 
irreducibly religious interpretations of religious phenomena. 

Phenomenology of religion is autonomous but not self-sufficient. It depends heavily 
on historical research and on data supplied by philology, ethnology, psychology, socio- 
logy, and other approaches. But it must always integrate the contributions of other 
approaches within its own unique phenomenological perspective. 

Intentionality Phenomenology analyzes acts of consciousness as consciousness of some- 
thing and claims that meaning is given in the intentionality of the structure. In order 
to identify, describe, and interpret the meaning of religious phenomena, scholars must 
be attentive to the intentional structure of their data. For Otto, the a priori structure 
of religious consciousness is consciousness of its intended 'numinous object.' Van der 
Leeuw's phenomenological-psychological technique and Eliade's dialectic of the sacred 
are methods for capturing the intentional characteristics of religious manifestations. 
The major criticism made by phenomenologists of religion of reductionist approaches 
involves the latter's negation of the unique intentionality of religious phenomena. 

198 Key approaches to the study of religions 

Religious experiences reveal structures of transcendence in which human beings 
intend a transcendent referent, a supernatural meta-empirical sacred meaning. Religious 
language points beyond itself to intended sacred structures and meanings that transcend 
normal spatial, temporal, historical, and conceptual categories and analysis. That is 
why religious expressions are highly symbolic, analogical, metaphorical, mythic, and 

At the same time, no intentional referent and meaning is unmediated. Such inten- 
tionality is always historically, culturally, and linguistically situated. For meaningful reli- 
gious experience and communication, the intended transcendent referent must be 
mediated and brought into an integral human relation with our limited spatial, tem- 
poral, historical, cultural world with its intended objects and meanings. This is why 
symbolism, in its complex and diverse structures and functions, is essential for reveal- 
ing, constituting, and communicating religious intentional meaning. Religious symbolic 
expressions serve as indispensable mediating bridges. On the one hand, they always 
point beyond themselves to intended transcendent meanings. On the other hand, by 
necessarily using symbolic language drawn from the spatial, temporal, natural, histori- 
cal world of experience, they mediate the transcendent referent, limit and incarnate 
the sacred, allow the disclosure of the transcendent as imminent, and render sacred 
meanings humanly accessible and relevant to particular existential situations. 

This specific religious intentionality ensures that the structures of religious experi- 
ence, as well as interpretations and understandings, will remain open-ended. The 
necessary structural conditions for religious experience, the construction of religious 
texts, and the formulation of scholarly interpretations ensure that meaningful human 
understandings necessarily reveal limited intentional perspectives. And such relative, 
situated, intentional, religious perspectives always point beyond themselves to struc- 
tures of transcendence; to inexhaustible possibilities for revalorizing symbolic 
expressions, for bursting open self-imposed perspectival closures, and for new, creative, 
self- transcending experiences, interpretations, and understandings. 

Epoche, empathy, and sympathetic understanding By bracketing and suspending our unex- 
amined assumptions and ordinary preconceptions and judgments, we become attentive 
to a much fuller disclosure of what manifests itself and how it manifests itself in experi- 
ence. This allows for greater awareness of phenomena experienced on prereflective, 
emotive, imaginative, nonconceptual levels of intentional experience, thus leading to 
new insights into the specific intentionality and concrete richness of experience. 

The phenomenological epoche, with an emphasis on empathy and sympathetic 
understanding, is related to methodological antireductionism. By suspending all 
personal preconceptions as to what is real and insisting on the irreducibility of the 
religious, phenomenologists attempt sympathetically to place themselves within the 
religious 'life-world' of others and to grasp the religious meaning of the experienced 
phenomena. Critics charge that phenomenologists often give little more than vague 
appeals to abstain from value judgments and to exercise a personal capacity for empa- 
thetic participation, but without scholarly criteria for verifying whether such 
sympathetic understanding has been achieved. 

There are limitations to this personal participation, since the other always remains 
to some extent the 'other.' This phenomenological orientation may be contrasted 
with the ideal of detached, impersonal scientific objectivity that characterizes almost 

Phenomenology of religion 199 

all nineteenth-century approaches within the scholarly study of religion and that 
continues to define many approaches today. 

In assuming a sympathetic attitude, the phenomenologist is not claiming that reli- 
gious phenomena are not 'illusory' and that the intentional object is 'real.' (As a 
matter of fact, many phenomenologists make such theological and metaphysical 
assumptions and judgments, but these usually violate the self-defined limits of their 
phenomenological perspectives.) The phenomenological bracketing entails the 
suspension of all such value judgments regarding whether or not the holy or sacred 
is actually an experience of ultimate reality. 

Many phenomenologists argue for the necessity of religious commitment, a personal 
religious faith, or at least personal religious experience in order for a scholar to be 
capable of empathy, participation, and sympathetic understanding. Other phenome- 
nologists argue that such personal religious commitments generally produce biased 
descriptions. It seems that a particular faith or theological commitment is not a 
precondition for accurate phenomenological descriptions. Rather it is a commitment 
to religious phenomena, manifested in terms of intellectual curiosity, sensitivity, and 
respect, that is indispensable for participation and understanding. Such a commitment 
may be shared by believers and nonbelievers alike. 

Insight into essential structures and meanings No subject matter is more central to philo- 
sophical phenomenology than analyses of the eidetic reduction and eidetic vision, 
the intuition of essences, the method of free variation, and other techniques for 
gaining insight into the essential structures and meanings of phenomena. By contrast, 
phenomenology of religion, even in the specific sense of an approach concerned with 
describing essential structures and meanings, has usually avoided such methodological 

One generally finds that most phenomenologists of religion accept both Bleeker's 
qualification that such terms as 'eidetic vision' are used only in a figurative sense 
and his warning that phenomenology of religion should not meddle in difficult philo- 
sophical questions of methodology. The result is that one is frequently presented 
with phenomenological typologies, 'universal structures,' and 'essential meanings' that 
lack a rigorous analysis of just how the phenomenologist arrived at or verified these 

Phenomenologists aim at intuiting, interpreting, and describing the essence of reli- 
gious phenomena, but there is considerable disagreement as to what constitutes an 
essential structure. For some phenomenologists, an 'essential structure' is the result of 
an empirical inductive generalization expressing a property that different phenomena 
have in common. In the sense closest to philosophical phenomenology, essence refers 
to deep or hidden structures, which are not apparent on the level of immediate experi- 
ence and must be uncovered and interpreted through the phenomenological method. 
These structures express the necessary invariant features allowing us to distinguish 
religious phenomena and to grasp religious phenomena as phenomena of a certain kind. 

Controversial issues 

The examination of major characteristics of phenomenology of religion raises many 
controversial issues. 

200 Key approaches to the study of religions 

Descriptive versus normative claims There are controversial issues regarding the claim 
that phenomenology of religion is a descriptive discipline with a descriptive method, 
especially since almost all phenomenologists go far beyond a mere description of the 
data, offering comparisons and evaluations of phenomena, universal structures, and 
essential meanings. 

Many of these issues arise from the acceptance of a rather traditional descriptive- 
normative distinction. The adoption by many phenomenologists of religion of a 
radical, at times absolute, descriptive— normative dichotomy has been consistent with 
the classical empiricism of such philosophers as David Hume, with the Kantian philo- 
sophical framework, and with most nineteenth- and twentieth-century approaches 
to religions. 

Even those phenomenologists of religion who go beyond Kristensen's descriptive 
restrictions frequently adopt a clear distinction between the collection and descrip- 
tion of religious data, which is seen as objective and scientific, and the interpretation 
of meaning, which is at least partially subjective and normative. Despite its rejec- 
tion of earlier models of positivism, it may be that phenomenology of religion has 
unintentionally retained some of the positivistic assumptions regarding the description 
of unconstructed, uninterpreted, objective 'facts.' 

Recent scholarship often challenges this absolute dichotomy. What is taken as 
objective and scientific is historically, culturally, and socially situated, based on 
presuppositions, and constructed in terms of implicit and explicit value judgments. 
For example, how does one even begin the investigation? What facts should be 
collected as religious facts? One's very principles of selectivity are never completely 
value-free. Indeed, philosophical phenomenologists have never accepted this sharp 
dichotomy, since the entire phenomenological project is founded on the possibilities 
of describing meanings. The challenge to phenomenology of religion is to formulate 
a phenomenological method and framework for interpretation that allows the 
description of essential structures and meanings with some sense of objectivity. 

Understanding versus explanation claims Many controversial issues involve a sharp 
understanding-explanation dichotomy. Phenomenology often claims that it aims 
at understanding, which involves describing meanings, and avoids explanation, 
which involves uncovering historical, psychological, and other causal relationships. 
Phenomenologists describe what appears and how it appears, and they interpret the 
meaning of such phenomena, but they do not provide causal explanations. This 
'understanding' often has the sense of Verstehen as formulated by Dilthey and others 
as the method and goal of hermeneutics. Phenomenologists aim at interpreting 
meaning and understanding the nature of religious and other 'human' phenomena, 
as opposed to scientific, reductionistic approaches that give causal and other expla- 
nations and do not grasp the irreducibly human and irreducibly religious dimension 
of the phenomena they investigate. 

Critics challenge such methods and goals as unscholarly and unscientific, and many 
scholars question whether phenomenological understanding and nonphenomenolog- 
ical explaining can be so completely separated. Explanatory approaches always involve 
understanding, and understanding is not possible without critical explanatory reflec- 
tion. For example, even in terms of phenomenological understanding, the expressions 
of the religious other are not the final word, absolute and inviolable. The other may 

Phenomenology of religion 201 

have a limited understanding of phenomena shaping her or his religious life-world, 
provide false explanations, talk nonsense, and engage in blatantly unethical behavior. 
Phenomenology of religion necessarily involves critical reflection, including contex- 
tual awareness and scholarly interpretations, understandings, and explanations that 
go beyond describing the expressed position of the religious other. 

This in no way denies the value of phenomenological approaches that are self- 
critical in rendering explicit one's own presuppositions, suspend one's own value 
judgments, empathize and hear the voices of the religious other, and describe as accu- 
rately as possible the religious phenomena and intended meanings of the religious 
other. Such phenomenology of religion aims at finding ways to allow other voices 
to be heard and is informed by a history of dominant, critical, normative approaches 
and reductionistic explanations that ignore, silence, and misinterpret the religious 
phenomena of others. 

Antireductionist claims Many critics attack phenomenology of religion's antireduc- 
tionism, arguing that it is methodologically confused and unjustified and that it 
arises from the theological intention of defending religion against secular analysis. 
Critics argue that all methodological approaches are perspectival, limiting, and neces- 
sarily reductionistic. The assumption of the irreducibility of the religious is itself 
reductionistic, since it limits what phenomena will be investigated, what aspects 
of the phenomena will be described, and what meanings will be interpreted. 
Phenomenologists of religion cannot argue that other reductionistic approaches are 
necessarily false and that their approach does justice to all dimensions of religious 

Phenomenology of religion must show that its religious antireductionism is not 
methodologically confused, does not beg serious scholarly questions, and does not 
simply avoid serious scholarly challenges. It can argue for an antireductionist method- 
ological primacy on the basis of such key notions as intentionality and insight into 
essential structures and meanings. It must show, in terms of a rigorous method with 
procedures for verification, that its particular perspective is essential in shedding light 
on such religious structures and meanings. 

Empirical and historical claims Much of philosophical phenomenology, even when 
described as a radical empiricism, is conceived in opposition to traditional empiri- 
cism adopted by many approaches to religion. Husserl called for a 'phenomenological 
reduction' in which the phenomenologist 'suspends' the 'natural standpoint' and its 
empirical world in order to become more attentive to phenomena and to intuit the 
deeper phenomenological essences. 

Critics often claim that phenomenology of religion starts with a priori nonempir- 
ical assumptions, utilizes a method that is not empirically based, and detaches religious 
structures and meanings from their specific historical and cultural contexts. Such 
critics often assume a clear-cut dichotomy between an empirical, inductive, histor- 
ical approach and a nonempirical, often rationalist, deductive, antihistorical 
approach. They identify their approaches with the former and phenomenology of 
religion with versions of the latter. They conclude that the phenomenology of reli- 
gion cannot meet minimal empirical, historical, inductive criteria for a scientific 
approach, such as rigorous criteria for verification and falsification. 

202 Key approaches to the study of religions 

Controversies arise from criticisms that phenomenology of religion is highly norma- 
tive and subjective because it makes nonempirical, nonhistorical, a priori, theological, 
and other normative assumptions, and because it grants an ontologically privileged 
status to religious phenomena and to specific kinds of religious experience. Critics 
charge that Kristensen, Otto, van der Leeuw, Eliade, and others have nonempirical 
and nonhistorical, extraphenomenological, theological, and other normative assump- 
tions, intentions, and goals that define much of their phenomenological projects, 
taking them beyond the domain of a descriptive phenomenology and any rigorous 
scientific approach. 

The status granted to essential religious structures and meanings is also contro- 
versial insofar as they exhibit the peculiarity of being empirical - that is, based on 
investigating a limited sample of historical data - and, at the same time, universal. 
These structures are therefore empirically contingent and yet also the essential neces- 
sary features of religious phenomena. 

Finally, there is controversy regarding the insistence by many phenomenologists 
of religion that they proceed by some kind of empirical inductive inference that is 
not unlike the classical formulations of induction developed by John Stuart Mill and 
others. Critics charge that they cannot repeat this inductive inference, that the 
phenomenological structures do not appear in the empirical data, and that phenom- 
enologists read into their data all kinds of essential meanings. Some, such as Douglas 
Allen in Structure and Creativity in Religion, respond by formulating a method of 
'phenomenological induction' different from classical empirical induction, in which 
essential structures and meaning are based on, but not found fully in, the empirical 

Questions of verification Many criticisms that phenomenology of religion is method- 
ologically uncritical involve questions of verification. Phenomenological 'intuition' 
does not free one from the responsibility of ascertaining which interpretation of a 
given phenomenon is most adequate nor of substantiating why this is so. Fueling 
this controversy is the observation that different phenomenologists, while investi- 
gating the same phenomena and claiming to utilize the phenomenological method, 
continually present different eidetic intuitions. How does one resolve this contin- 
gency introduced into phenomenological insights? How does one verify specific 
interpretations and decide between different interpretations? 

Such questions pose specific difficulties for a phenomenological method of epoche 
and intuition of essences. A phenomenological method often suspends the usual cri- 
teria of 'objectivity' that allow scholars to verify interpretations and choose between 
alternative accounts. Does this leave phenomenology of religion with a large number 
of very personal, extremely subjective, hopelessly fragmented interpretations of uni- 
versal structures and meanings, each relativistic interpretation determined by the par- 
ticular temperament, situation, and orientation of the individual phenomenologist? 

The phenomenologist of religion can argue that past criteria for verification are 
inadequate and result in a false sense of objectivity, but phenomenology of religion 
must also overcome the charges of subjectivity and relativism by struggling with ques- 
tions of verification. It must formulate procedures for testing its claims of essential 
structures and meanings that involve criteria for intersubjective verification. 

Phenomenology of religion 203 

Response to controversial issues Many writers describe phenomenology of religion as 
in a state of crisis. They usually minimize the invaluable contributions made by 
phenomenology to the study of religion, such as the impressive systematization of so 
much religious data and the raising of fundamental questions of meaning often ignored 
by other approaches. 

If phenomenology of religion is to deal adequately with its controversial issues, the 
following are several of its future tasks. First, it must become more aware of histor- 
ical, philological, and other specialized approaches to, and different aspects of, its 
religious data. Second, it must critique various approaches of its critics, thus showing 
that its phenomenological method is not obliged to meet such inadequate criteria 
for objectivity. And most importantly, it must reflect more critically on questions of 
methodology so that phenomenology of religion can formulate a more rigorous 
method, allowing for description of phenomena, interpretation of their structures and 
meanings, and verification of its findings. 

Recent developments in phenomenology of religion 

Developments within phenomenology of religion during the last decades of the twen- 
tieth century and the early years of the twenty-first century convey a very mixed 
and confusing picture about the present status and future prospects for the field. 

Within religious studies 

Phenomenology of religion continues as a major discipline and approach within the 
general scholarly study of religion. Phenomenologists of religion are influenced by 
earlier phenomenologists, and they share the general phenomenological orientation 
defined by the major characteristics previously delineated. Phenomenology of reli- 
gion has also been successful to the extent that many other scholars, who do not 
consider themselves phenomenologists, adopt a phenomenological approach during 
early stages of their scholarly investigations because it has great value in allowing 
them to assemble data and do justice to the religious perspectives of religious persons. 
At the same time, phenomenology of religion is sometimes described as being in 
a state of crisis. There are no contemporary phenomenologists of religion who enjoy 
the status and influence once enjoyed by a van der Leeuw or an Eliade. Some scholars, 
doing phenomenology of religion, are uncomfortable with the term since it carries 
so much past baggage from Husserlian philosophical foundations and from Eliadean 
and other phenomenology of religion they consider outdated. In general, contem- 
porary phenomenologists of religion attempt to be more contextually sensitive and 
more modest in their phenomenological claims. 

Recent challenges 

Most scholarly challenges to phenomenology of religion continue major criticisms 
previously described. Robert Segal and other leading scholars of religion, usually iden- 
tified with social scientific and reductionist approaches, repeatedly criticize phenom- 
enology of religion for being unscientific, highly subjective, and lacking scholarly 
rigor. Scholars identifying with reductionistic cognitive science and claiming that 

204 Key approaches to the study of religions 

this is the only rigorous method and model for gaining objective knowledge provide 
a recent illustration of such challenges. 

There are also challenges to phenomenology of religion that offer opposite criti- 
cisms from the social scientific reductionist approaches. They criticize the phenom- 
enology of religion's claim to uncover universal structures and essences as being too 
reductionistic in denying the diversity and plurality of religious phenomena. Included 
here are a variety of approaches often described as postmodernist, deconstructionist, 
post-structuralist, narrativist, pragmatist, feminist, and relativist. 

For example, in Beyond Phenomenology: Rethinking the Study of Religion, Gavin Flood 
argues that the inadequate presuppositions, central concepts, and models of Husserl's 
philosophical phenomenology have dominated the study of religion. Influenced 
primarily by Mikhail Bakhtin's dialogical analysis and Ricoeur's hermeneutical 
analysis, Flood proposes a dialogical, narrativist, interactional, dynamic model for 
rethinking the study of religion. This model includes: recognition of signs and 
language as a starting point; rejection of essentializing hegemonic approaches with 
universalizing claims to objectivity; recognition that self is always embodied and 
embedded, relational and interactive, contextualized, constituted and constituting 
subject; recognition of complex narrativist situatedness of both investigator and 
subject matter with dialogical, mutually interactive relations between the two perspec- 
tives; and affirmation of open-ended, perspectival nature of all knowledge with 
emphasis on nonclosure of interpretations and explanations. 

In response, one can submit that Flood greatly exaggerates the impact of Husserlian 
transcendental phenomenology on the study of religion, and that most critiques of 
phenomenology and the anti-phenomenological features he formulates can be found 
within later developments of philosophical phenomenology and phenomenology of 

Philosophical phenomenology of religion 

The emphasis in this chapter has been on phenomenology of religion as a discipline 
and method within Religionswissenschaft (general history of religions or religious 
studies). The emphasis has not been on philosophical phenomenology with its limited 
focus on religion. 

Special mention may be made of two influential European philosophers. Emmanuel 
Levinas, a student of Husserl with deep roots in phenomenology, became one of the 
dominant continental philosophers in the late twentieth century. With his major 
focus on ethics, spirituality, and Jewish philosophy, Levinas emphasized radical alterity 
and the primacy of the 'other,' thus reversing earlier phenomenological self— other 
emphasis on the privileged status of the constituting self or ego. Ricoeur, also with 
deep roots in Husserl and phenomenology, has made invaluable contributions to our 
understanding of religious phenomena with his analysis of philosophy as the 
hermeneutical interpretation of meaning and with his focus on religious language, 
symbolism, and narrative. 

Beginning in the last part of the twentieth century, continental philosophy often 
takes a religious turn. It is not always clear whether to classify such developments 
under 'the phenomenology of religion,' although scholars such as Michel Henry and 
especially Jean-Luc Marion are often discussed as part of the renewed interest in 

Phenomenology of religion 205 

philosophical phenomenology of religion and under the 'new phenomenology.' Most 
of these key philosophers are deeply influenced by Husserl's phenomenology, but they 
often seem to transgress phenomenology's boundaries and express ambiguous relations 
to phenomenology. 

While significant developments in continental philosophy, usually influenced by 
Husserl and philosophical phenomenology, increasingly focus on religion, it is not 
yet clear whether such philosophical developments will have a significant influence 
on phenomenology of religion within religious studies. 

Several recent contributions 

Finally, there are three, recent, interrelated contributions to phenomenology of reli- 
gion that often contrast with earlier dominant characteristics: focus on the 'other,' 
givenness, and contextualization. 

Philosophical phenomenology and phenomenology of religion emphasize the need 
to become aware of one's presuppositions, suspend one's value judgments, and accu- 
rately describe and interpret the meaning of phenomena as phenomena. Past philoso- 
phy, theology, and other normative approaches have been critiqued for ignoring or 
distorting the intentional structures and meanings of the religious phenomena of the 
'other.' More recent phenomenologists recognize that earlier phenomenology, with its 
essentializing projects and universalizing claims, often did not pay sufficient attention 
to the diverse experiences and meanings of the other. One sometimes learns more 
about the scholar's phenomenological theory of religion than about the particular reli- 
gious phenomena of others. Recent phenomenology has been more sensitive to pro- 
viding a methodological framework for becoming attentive to the tremendous diversity 
of the religious voices of others. 

Related to this is the focus on givenness. Philosophical phenomenology and 
phenomenology of religion emphasize the need to become attentive to what is given 
in experience. Phenomenological reflection involves an active openness and deeper 
kind of attentiveness to how religious phenomena appear or are given to us in experi- 
ence. Over the decades, phenomenology of religion has become much broader, more 
self-critical, and more sophisticated in recognizing the complexity, ambiguity, and 
depth of our diverse modes of givenness. For example, in their very dynamic of given- 
ness, religious phenomena both reveal and conceal structures and meanings; are 
multidimensional and given meaning through pre-understandings, the prereflective, 
the emotive, and the imaginative, as well as rational and conceptual analysis; are 
not disclosed as bare givens but as highly complex, inexhaustible, constituted, self- 
transcending givens; and are given in ways that affirm the open-ended perspectival 
nature of all knowledge and the nonclosure of descriptions, interpretations, and 

Phenomenologists of religion are much more sensitive to the complex, mediated, 
interactive, contextual situatedness of their phenomenological tasks. Philosophical 
phenomenology and phenomenology of religion are continually criticized for claiming 
to uncover nonhistorical, nontemporal, essential structures and meanings largely 
detached from specific contexts within which religious phenomena have been 
expressed. Recent phenomenologists of religion tend to be more sensitive to the 
perspectival and contextual constraints of their approach and more modest in their 

206 Key approaches to the study of religions 

claims. There is value in uncovering religious essences and structures, but as embodied 
and contextualized, not as fixed, absolute, ahistorical, eternal truths and meanings. 

By now, it may be clear to many readers that phenomenology of religion has 
had a profound impact on diverse branches of religious studies, sometimes overtly 
and sometimes almost imperceptibly. Many scholars within religious studies, who 
would never call themselves phenomenologists, have had their teaching and research 
shaped by the contributions of phenomenology of religion. Their concerns about 
uncritical presuppositions and reductionism, empathy and essential structures, and 
other characteristics of phenomenology, as well as the phenomenological focus on 
such topics as sacred space and time, myth and ritual, have been influenced by their 
exposure to the phenomenology of religion. 

Within the specific discipline and approaches of the phenomenology of religion, 
a more self-critical and modest phenomenology of religion may have much to 
contribute to the study of religion. It will include awareness of its presuppositions, 
its historical and contextualized situatedness, and its limited perspectival knowledge 
claims. But it will not completely abandon concerns about the commonality of human 
beings and the value of unity, as well as differences. Such a self-critical and modest 
phenomenology of religion will attempt to formulate essential structures and mean- 
ings through rigorous phenomenological methods, including intersubjective con- 
firmation of knowledge claims, while also attempting to formulate new, dynamic, 
contextually sensitive projects involving creative encounter, contradiction, and 


Allen, Douglas. Structure and Creativity in Religion: Hermeneutics in Mircea Eliade's 
Phenomenology and New Directions (The Hague: Mouton, 1978). Modern approaches to reli- 
gion with focus on Eliade's phenomenology. 

Bleeker, C. Jouco. The Sacred Bridge: Researches into the Nature and Structure of Religion (Leiden: 
Brill, 1963). Essays on Bleeker's phenomenology of religion. 

Eliade, Mircea. Patterns in Comparative Religion, translated by Rosemary Sheed (New York: 
World, 1963). Systematic morphological work illustrating Eliade's phenomenological frame- 
work for interpreting religious meaning. 

The Quest: History and Meaning in Religion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969). 

Essays on Eliade's phenomenological method and discipline. 

Flood, Gavin. Beyond Phenomenology: Rethinking the Study of Religion (London and New York: 
Cassell, 1999). Narrativist, dialogical, postmodernist challenge to phenomenology of religion. 

Honko, Lauri, ed. Science of Religion: Studies in Methodology (The Hague: Mouton, 1979). 
Essays under the title The Future of the Phenomenology of Religion.' 

Idinopulos, Thomas A. and Edward A. Yonan, eds. Religion and Reductionism: Essays on Eliade, 
Segal, and the Challenge of the Social Sciences for the Study of Religion (Leiden, New York: 
Brill, 1994). Includes Robert Segal's 'In Defense of Reductionism.' 

Janicaud, Dominique. Phenomenology and the 'Theological Turn : The French Debate (New York: 
Fordham University Press, 2000). Essays by Janicaud, Courtine, Ricoeur, Chretien, Marion, 
and Henry illustrating a turn toward religion in French philosophy influenced by phenom- 

Kristensen, William Brede. The Meaning of Religion: Lectures in the Phenomenology of Religion, 
translated by John B. Carman (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1960). Restricted descriptive phenom- 

Phenomenology of religion 207 

Leeuw, Gerardus van der. Religion in Essence and Manifestation: A Study in Phenomenology, 2 
vols, 2nd edn., translated by J. E. Turner (New York: Harper & Row, 1963). Classic work 
in phenomenology of religion. 

Marion, Jean-Luc. Being Given: Toward a Phenomenology of Givenness, translated by Jeffrey 
Kosky (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2002). Leading philosopher in 'new 
phenomenology' focusing on religious phenomena. 

Otto, Rudolf. The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the 
Divine and its Relation to the Rational, translated by John W. Harvey (New York and London: 
Oxford University Press, 1950). Best-known phenomenological account of religious experi- 

Ricoeur, Paul. The Symbolism of Evil, translated by Emerson Buchanan (New York: Harper & 
Row, 1967). One of Ricoeur's many philosophical works focusing on religious phenomena. 

Scheler, Max. On the Eternal in Man, translated by Bernard Noble (London: SCM, New York: 
Harper, 1960). First major philosophical phenomenologist with focus on religion. 

Sharpe, Eric J. Comparative Religion: A History, 2nd edn. (La Salle, 111.: Open Court, 1986). 
Includes survey of phenomenology of religion. 

Smart, Ninian. The Science of Religion and the Sociology of Knowledge: Some Methodological 
Questions (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1973). Background on his phenom- 
enological approach. 

Spiegelberg, Herbert, The Phenomenological Movement: A Historical Introduction, 2 vols., 3rd 
edn. (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1982). Most comprehensive general introduction to philosophical 

Waardenburg, Jacques. Classical Approaches to the Study of Religion: Aims, Methods, and Theories 
of Research, 2 vols. (The Hague: Mouton, 1973-1974). General introduction to scholars 
identified with modern study of religion including phenomenologists of religion. 

Chapter I I 

Comparative religion 

William £. Paden 

Comparative religion originated as an academic movement in the late nineteenth cen- 
tury. It signified then, as today, the cross-cultural study of all forms and traditions of 
religious life, as distinguished from the study or exposition of just one. As such, it 
entails the disciplined, historically informed consideration of any commonalities and 
differences that appear among religions. 

Seeing similarities and differences is a basic activity of the human mind. The per- 
ception of relationships and patterns is the way individuals and cultures organize their 
experience of the world. It is a process without which there would be undifferentiated 
chaos, or at best only isolated facts. Likewise, specialized knowledge in any field 
advances by finding or constructing concepts and categories that give order and intel- 
ligibility to otherwise unrelated data. Comparison, among other things, is the process 
by which generalizations and classifications are produced, and is the basis of scientific 
and interpretive enterprises of every kind. The very concept 'religion,' as an academic 
definition of a certain area of culture, is such a cross-cultural, comparative category. 

There can be no systematic study of religion as a subject matter without cross- 
cultural perspective. Lacking this, studies of religion would amount either to separate 
collections of unrelated historical data, or to speculative generalizations based only on 
the perspective of one culture. Modern generations of scholars have therefore tried to 
build an objective, or at least transcultural, vocabulary for describing a subject matter 
that is found in very different times, places and languages. For one cannot generalize 
about religion on the basis of the language and norms of just a single case, just as 
geologists do not construct a geology on the basis of the rocks that merely happen to be 
in one's neighborhood. The neighborhood rocks, analogues to one's own local religion, 
are themselves instances of certain common, universal properties of geological forma- 
tions, chemical structures, and evolutionary development. Accordingly, without know- 
ing these 'comparative' elements, one cannot know what is common and what is 
different about any particular religious phenomenon. Without them, one might not be 
able to see certain transcultural structures and functions in a given religious system. 

Comparative analysis, then, both builds and applies the perspectives, reference 
points, and materials for any cumulative, interpretive study of religion. Moreover, these 
resources must necessarily be the collective, synthetic result of the contributions of 
many specialists, as no single person will have first-hand and technical knowledge 
of all of the world's religious cultures. While comparison is a tool that can be applied 
locally or among restricted historical and regional data, this essay focuses on its 
cross-cultural, generalizing functions. 

Comparative religion 209 

Comparison: the factor of selectivity 

The process of comparison has a basic structure. First, there must be a point of com- 
monality that allows for the comparison of two or more objects. Notably, the very term 
'comparison' contains this idea, deriving from the Latin elements com, 'with,' and par, 
'equal.' But comparison does not have to be limited to seeing commonalities. It can 
also perceive difference with respect to some aspect of what is otherwise in common. 
In everyday terms, for example, one can compare new houses (= the common factor) 
with regard to price (= the chosen criterion or aspect of difference). Likewise, one 
could compare religions (= the broad common factor) with regard to their population 
size, or their types of authority, or their views on gender; or compare purification rites 
with regard to their specific methods of removing impurity. 

The history of the comparative study of religion is the history and application of 
what its scholars have taken these common factors and these criteria of difference 
to be. Comparison in itself is an activity, and not a theory or ideology, but it has 
been a tool of many different theories and hence employed for either scientific or 
religious purposes. For example, it has been a means for: 

• demonstrating the superiority of one's own religion; 

• showing that all religion is based on the same spiritual reality; 

• undercutting the absolutist claims of any one religion by showing that it is not 

• giving idealized interpretation to religions that might otherwise be considered 
inferior, marginal, or foreign; 

• demonstrating the ability to show 'understanding' of other religions from their 
own point of view; 

• demonstrating or testing any theory (about religion) by giving 'evidence' for it 
in different cultures. 

To take but one example: How might the biblical story of creation appear in the 
light of some very different 'comparative' approaches? For the believer, to whom the 
account presents itself as the unique, authoritative Word of God, any comparison 
with other 'origins' accounts might be to show the superiority of Genesis. In that 
case, the ancient Babylonian account of creation, the Enuma Elish, could be shown 
to represent a more primitive 'polytheistic' idea of the world, compared to the Bible's 
ostensibly 'pure' monotheism. The scenarios in the Enuma Elish that describe many 
gods and goddesses generating offspring and having to fend off chaos, would be picked 
out to contrast unfavorably with the Genesis version of one supreme god who is in 
charge of creation from the beginning and has no equals. 

But for those interested in goddess mythologies, the Genesis story has been 
presented quite differently. Here the biblical account has been viewed as a latter- 
day, patriarchal version of mythologies that once honored a primal goddess with her 
sacred tree and companion serpent. In this comparative sequence, the Hebrew 
account would be construed as a story that demoted the power of the goddess — who 
in Genesis becomes the very human Eve, the source of man's fall, and the proto- 
type of female subservience to males. 

For those interested in the unity of all religions, and the unity of the human and 
the divine, the relevant 'comparative' aspect of the Genesis story might be the part 

210 Key approaches to the study of religions 

about humans being made in God's own image in a time before 'the Fall.' Mythologies 
depicting an original oneness, for example in Hindu traditions, would then be 
juxtaposed with this to indicate the universality of the theme. 

While the present article focuses mainly on academic, secular comparativism, the 
traditional role of religious approaches has been so pervasive that it does require 
some preliminary attention, too. 

Religious forms of comparison 

For those approaching comparison with religious motivation, their own beliefs are 
understandably used as a standard of comparison. Historical Christian versions of 
comparative endeavors provide a range of examples of this. 

Examples of Christian 'comparative religion' 

Christian theologians needed to account for the existence of other religions and their 
gods, and traditional strategies included a whole spectrum of negative and positive 
interpretations that may be summarized briefly. 

Demonic origins Who or what were these 'pagan' gods that received so much devo- 
tion? Perhaps they were not really gods at all but demons seeking their own 
worshippers? How were missionaries to explain the presence of sculpted 'crosses' in 
Mayan temples that pre-dated the arrival of Christianity? Such overt parallels could 
easily be seen as the mocking work of Satan, understood to be aping or imitating 
the true religion. 

Historical diffusion A second Christian strategy of explanation was the idea of 'histor- 
ical' diffusion. Insofar as nonbiblical religions appeared to have anything truly 
religious about them, like the belief in a creator god, this could be explained as 
having been ultimately derived from the original pure monotheism of the biblical 
patriarchs. Likewise, where there was 'idolatrous' religion, such as the worship of 
forces of nature, this could be interpreted as a historical 'degeneration' from that 
same once pure source. Thus, any religious expression could be seen in terms of a 
unified theory of historical diffusion which assumed that all religions, as all cultures, 
could be traced to and from the survivors of the Great Flood. Sometimes etymolo- 
gies were relied on to explain the transmission of these 'survivals' or 'remnants' of 
the patriarchal times. For example, the Hindu god Brahma was understood as a latter- 
day historical transformation of the biblical name, 'Abraham.' On other occasions, 
the idea of travel contact was used to explain how religions like those of the native 
American Indians were able to obtain their ideas about a creator god. Could know- 
ledge of God have been brought to them across the ocean by one of the lost tribes 
of Israel? 

Allegorical truths A third mode of Christian comparison was to view other religions as 
containing symbols of Christian truths. Christians were already used to the idea that 
the Hebrew Bible contained images and events that allegorically prefigured the com- 
ing of the Christian messiah. Ancient Hebraic sacrifices, for example, were interpreted 

Comparative religion 211 

as symbolizing the sacrifice of Christ. Likewise, deities of other religions could be 
seen as representing attributes of the true God — for example, the goddess Athena was 
interpreted as pointing to God's 'wisdom.' 

Natural vs. revealed religion Christians also developed the idea of natural vs. revealed 
religion. This is the notion that all humans, by being made in the divine image, 
have a natural potential to know God. Such endowment could therefore account for 
the presence of other religions. Yet, while all humans have access to a basic know- 
ledge of God, 'revealed' knowledge was God's full revelation through Christ to the 
biblical communities. In comparison, Christ could naturally be seen as the fulfill- 
ment of the innate yearnings of other religious peoples, and Christianity would be 
understood as religion in its highest, most complete, and universal form. 

Dialogue From modern theology has come the idea of 'dialogue' between religions. 
This means adopting a 'listening' stance toward others, and not merely a dogmatic, 
prejudging position that stereotypes others. For example, a statement of the Roman 
Catholic Church (from the Second Vatican Council, 1962-1965), urged its members 
to appreciate the presence of 'the holy' in other traditions, and also established a 
permanent commission to study the other faiths and explore their meaning through 
open dialogue. Wilfrid Cantwell Smith (1916-2000), an influential comparativist 
and specialist in Islam, emphasized that the comparative study of religion needs to 
responsibly describe the living qualities of other peoples' faiths in a way that those 
other persons themselves would be able to recognize as their own position. 


In contrast to Christian comparisons, there is another religious approach that may 
be termed universalism. This affirms that all religions refer to the same underlying 
spiritual reality, but do so through different cultural forms and languages. Just as 
water is water, regardless of what it is called, so, in universalistic thinking, God is 
God, regardless of name. Even in the world of ancient Greece, there was a well- 
known doctrine of 'the equivalence of the gods.' Thus, the fifth-century BC Greek 
historian Herodotus reported that the gods of Egypt were basically Egyptian names 
for Greek divinities: Ammon was but another name for Zeus, Horus was the same 
as Apollo, and Isis was taken as equivalent to the goddess Demeter. 

Universalism became highly developed in classical Stoicism and during the 
European Renaissance, and was later fostered by the Romantic, Transcendentalist, 
and New Age movements. It has been a basic premise of many Asian and mystical 
traditions. In the Far East, Buddhists commonly interpreted native Chinese and 
Japanese gods as 'manifestations' of cosmic buddhas. Buddhas were the 'originals,' 
and the local gods were their 'appearances.' 

Universalism has variants. For some, it is motivated by a sense that all humans 
are basically alike. Many find a common set of precepts undergirding the world's reli- 
gions, such as the need to honor a divine being and assume ethical responsibility. 
Some look for common affirmations about peace or nonviolence. Still others under- 
stand the universal basis of religion in terms of a core spiritual experience or 
revelation of the divine. In that outlook, institutional and doctrinal differences are 

212 Key approaches to the study of religions 

merely seen as the secondary, outward elaborations of a shared, intuitive sense of the 
'wholly other' mystery that grounds all life. 

The rise of comparative religion as an academic field 

Interpreting and comparing religions evolves along with expanding knowledge of 
other cultures. One can only compare what lies within one's horizon of information. 
One can only study 'others' on the basis of the kind of knowledge of other cultures 
that is available at the time. In the Hebrew Bible, for example, references to other 
religions are always citations of other Near Eastern religions, not of Chinese, Japanese, 
or Indian religion. As recently as the early nineteenth century, Western Christendom 
still basically classified all religion into only four kinds, namely the three biblical 
monotheisms (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) and all others, lumped together as 'idol- 
atry,' or 'paganism,' a derogatory term referring to those who supposedly worshipped 
false gods. Accounts brought back by missionaries and travelers continued to support 
the stereotype of the benighted state of non-Western or non-biblical peoples. 

By the mid to late nineteenth century, however, the comparative study of reli- 
gion, by that name, was being put forth as a modern academic field of knowledge. 
Several developments made this possible. One was the expanding knowledge of Asian 
religions, particularly through access to translations of their scriptures. A second was 
the emerging knowledge of pre-literate cultures, produced partly by the new field of 
anthropology. A third was a new idea of history, namely that the whole of human 
culture had undergone a long evolution from primitive origins (in contrast to the 
biblical account of human origins). And a fourth was the general trend toward clas- 
sifying and mapping the data of the world's various subject matters. Together, these 
factors created a broad, new canvas for the study of religion. 

The most influential nineteenth-century advocate of comparative religion was 
F. Max Miiller (1823-1900). A native of Germany and then scholar at Oxford 
University from age 23, Miiller was an authority on Sanskrit, the classical religious 
language of India. He edited an important 50-volume translation series termed The 
Sacred Books of the East. He urged that the study of religion should no longer be 
limited to the religions of the Mediterranean and that the great civilizational reli- 
gions of the East, and their scriptures, should be taken seriously. Asian religions were 
to be brought into a horizon of respectful comparability with biblical religions. Here 
the older, parochial Western view of religious history as a simple contest of biblical 
vs. pagan traditions was to become obsolete. 

Along these lines, more accurate histories of religion were produced. These replaced 
the previous provincial notions that all human languages derive from Hebrew, that 
all cultures and religions were traceable to the family of Noah, and that the dating 
of scriptures — whether biblical or nonbiblical — should be taken at face value. 

Miiller and others held that comparative religion is to any one religion as compar- 
ative philology is to the study of any particular language, and as comparative anatomy 
is to the anatomy of any one species. As the life sciences made progress through 
application of this method, so too would religious inquiry. The study of one religion 
would throw light on the study of another. Miiller liked to apply to religion what 
the poet Goethe said of language: 'he who knows one . . . knows none.' In addition, 
Miiller also outlined a broad program and methodology of comparative study. This 

Comparative religion 213 

included principles like gaining knowledge of others through their own writings, 
grouping religions according to their regional, linguistic contexts, and avoiding the 
common distortion of comparing the positive aspects of one religion with the negative 
aspects of another (Miiller 1872). 

Toward an academic comparativism 

In principle, though not always in practice, academic comparativism does not presup- 
pose the value or truth of any one religion, but sets out to investigate religion as a 
patterned phenomenon of human culture and behavior. The rise of comparativism 
as a concern of the human sciences required in the first place that all religion would 
be studied by the same criteria. No religion would be privileged. No religious version 
of history would be used as normative. While all religions professed their own ances- 
tral accounts of the past, the new, panhuman, naturalistic worldview now showed 
quite a different story of origins — a long, complex evolution of culture that did not 
coincide with the self-interested accounts of the various world scriptures. Religion — 
once the norm in terms of which all history and culture was perceived — now itself 
became an object to be interpreted in terms of wider patterns of human history. 

Again, one source of this new knowledge was so-called primitive cultures, and 
anthropologists looked to these to find the origin of the fundamental structures of 
religious belief and practice and to identify universal laws about their evolution. The 
English scholar Edward B. Tylor (1832-1917) found 'belief in spiritual beings' (which 
he worked into a theory he called 'animism') to originate in the experience of dreams 
and of deceased relatives, and thence to evolve into forms of polytheism and 
monotheism. Others focused on the universal role of 'power' or mana (Melanesian 
term for supernatural force) in religions. The influential French sociologist Emile 
Durkheim (1858-1917) advocated that the source and structuring principle of reli- 
gious life was 'the totemic principle.' In this theory, sacred objects were maintained 
as sacred because they symbolized each group's own social identity and tradition. 
Arnold van Gennep's classic, Rites of Passage (original French edition, 1908), showed 
the universality of ritual patterns by which social and life-cycle transitions were 
performed, and became part of the currency of comparative thinking. An influential 
application of comparativism to biblical religion was W. Robertson Smith's The 
Religion of the Semites (1889). Smith located ancient Hebrew practices in terms of 
common 'primitive' categories of totemic communion, sacrificial rites, sacred places, 
and taboos. The suggestion that biblical religion could be seen in such contexts was 
a scandal to many in his day. 

The best known of these pre-modern comparativists was James G. Frazer 
(1854-1941), particularly through his book, The Golden Bough, first published in two 
volumes in 1890, and later to grow to twelve volumes. The Golden Bough was a vast 
compendium of examples of ritual, myth, and religion, organized by patterns and 
themes, and presented as an instance of comparative method. Frazer made extensive 
use of sources from primitive and folk cultures. The work began by citing an obscure 
Roman rite about the practice of succession to the priesthood of the goddess Diana, 
an institution that appeared to involve a ritual killing of the old priest by a new 
priest who would then assume the office. As a way of throwing comparative light on 
this, Frazer marshaled extensive illustrations from around the world that addressed 

214 Key approaches to the study of religions 

the theme and subthemes of the ritual renewal of life, thus providing a universal 
context to the original Italian example. The Golden Bough became a study of the 
transcultural themes of sacred kingship, rites of succession, seasonal renewal festivals, 
mythologies of dying and rising gods, rites of scapegoating and expulsion, various 
forms of sympathetic and 'contagious' magic, and substitutionary ritual deaths, among 
other topics. Frazer thought that these showed the patterned way that the premodern 
human mind worked — a kind of archaeology of mentality. He held that once these 
universal patternings were understood, then particular cultural practices and beliefs, 
otherwise obscure or foreign, might become more intelligible. 

Psychologists Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and C.G. Jung (1875-1961) also began 
to interpret religious patternings as expressions of the way the human psyche works. 
In particular, Jung correlated stages of the development of the human ego/self with 
what he took to be the equivalence of those stages expressed in the projection and 
history of mythological symbols. Hence certain psychological patterns or 'archetypes' 
could be found in religion — expressed, for example, in images of a primal paradise, 
a Great Mother, the journey of the 'hero,' or the reconciling 'union of opposites.' 
'God-images' were understood to represent various features of the 'archetype of the 
self,' in all its stages. The writings of Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) - including the 
classic, The Hero with a Thousand Faces - would bring much of this approach into 
the public domain. 

If recurring religious representations and practices appear independently in differ- 
ent cultures, with no explanation for their resemblances in terms of historical influ- 
ence, then that might suggest that the parallels express something common to the 
human condition. But what? What is it that the patternings of religious life ultimately 
express? What are they patterns of 7 . The human psyche? Social bonding? Political 
power? Gender empowerments? Varying environments? Social class? Are there stages 
of development that religious history goes through, and do the stages of the develop- 
ment of society and consciousness explain the varieties of religion? All of these tra- 
jectories of explanation utilized, indeed, required, comparative data. All have served 
as frameworks for pursuing and organizing the cross-cultural study of religion. Here, 
then, comparison ultimately involves more than description. It is guided by issues of 
explanation, too, and becomes a testing ground for theories of human behavior. 

Inventories, taxonomies, phenomenologies 

In late-nineteenth-century Europe, the general 'science of religion' included two prin- 
ciple components: historical and phenomenological. The latter referred mainly to a 
description of types and forms of religious experience. Its task was to collate and 
organize all the data of religious history into groupings or classes of religious expres- 
sions — that is, to identify an overall taxonomy or anatomy of religious life. This was 
an inventorial enterprise that resulted in encyclopedic catalogues illustrating all the 
common forms of religion. An example was the influential work of P.D. Chantepie 
de la Saussaye published in 1887 (in German) and translated as Manual of the Science 
of Religion. Chantepie classed kinds of religious 'phenomena' together, along with 
subclasses. For example, the class, 'objects of veneration,' included stones, trees, 
animals, sky, earth, sun, moon, fire, ancestors, saints, heroes, and gods. He grouped 
together 'practices' under rubrics like divination, sacrifice, prayer, sacred dance and 

Comparative religion 215 

music, processions, rites of purification, sacred times and places, and described cat- 
egories such as priests (and other religious specialists), scriptures, types of religious 
communities, myths, and theologies. Chantepie illustrated each category with exam- 
ples from different cultures, and summarized the research that had been done on it. 
What naturalists like Linnaeus had done for the botanical world was now to be done 
for religion. The religious world had to be mapped, and its many species, here its 
'classes of phenomena,' named and typed. 

The phenomenology of religion tradition also went beyond just mapping. It began 
to look for an understanding of how religious forms function in the worlds of the 
adherents. Two major figures that developed this were Gerardus van der Leeuw in 
his Religion in Essence and Manifestation (German original, 1933), and Mircea Eliade. 
Van der Leeuw's book, which described religion as a relationship to an 'other power,' 
focused on some 106 patterns of religious life. For each one he tried to bring out 
the essential religious values, structure, and meanings connected with it. 

Mircea Eliade's comparative patterns 

The best-known comparative religion scholar of the last generation was the 
Rumanian-born Mircea Eliade (1907-1986), who came to the University of Chicago 
in 1956. Eliade's interest was in the recurring patterns and symbolisms by which reli- 
gious cultures construct and inhabit their particular kinds of 'worlds,' through the 
language of myth and ritual. Such systems are structured by the factor of 'the sacred,' 
which makes them different from the nonreligious worlds which lack that dimen- 
sion. Eliade used the term hierophany, which literally means 'a manifestation of the 
sacred,' to refer to any object or form believed to convey spiritual power and value. 
Examples include trees, places, hunting, eating, one's country, personal gods, cosmic 
gods, or yogic techniques that aim at liberation from the human condition. Moreover, 
'To many a mystic,' Eliade writes, 'the integrated quality of the cosmos is itself a 
hierophany' (Eliade 1958: 459). Some particularly distinctive comparative 'modalities 
of the sacred' as interpreted by Eliade include: 

Sacred space All humans have the experience of space, but religious cultures endow 
special places as gateways or connectors to the world of the sacred. Religious systems 
orient life around certain fixed points that form a site of communication with the 
gods. The sites may be natural, provided by the environment, like certain rivers or 
mountains, or they may be human constructions like shrines and temples. Sometimes 
these linkages are explicitly understood to connect heaven and earth, the above and 
the below. Around such an axis, or 'Centre of the World,' the rest of the world, the 
ordinary world, rises up and receives its value. A grand-scale example would be the 
great shrine at Mecca, the Ka c ba, the spiritual point on earth that Muslims believe 
God ordained as a bond with humanity. But local altars may also comprise an axis 
mundi (world axis), too. 

The history of religion will show innumerable 'centres of the world,' each of which 
is absolute for the respective believers. Eliade's point is that this kind of language 
should not be judged literally or geographically, but as illustrative of a common reli- 
gious way of structuring one's world through concentrative, centripetal points of focus 
(objects, places, mountains, shrines). That is, because a 'world' is relative to a people, 

216 Key approaches to the study of religions 

these centres are not superstitious beliefs, but examples of a way the mind orients 
itself in space. Traditional Christian beliefs that placed Jerusalem's Church of the 
Holy Sepulchre (the traditional site of the tomb of Christ) at the centre of the world 
and world maps, or the equivalent claims in other traditions, may be then under- 
stood in this wider comparative context. In Eliadean usage, such comparative 
perspective on sacred space gives context, dimensionality and universal humanity to 
any particular version of religious places and orientations. 

Mythic time A related religious pattern featured in Eliade's work is 'sacred time.' 
These are ritual or festival occasions when believers step into the revered 'Great 
Time' of the founders and gods. Religious cultures see themselves in terms of their 
own foundational sacred histories — accounts of primal, originary times when the 
world was created by the actions of the great beings of the past. However, it is not 
just past, chronological time. It is time that always underlies present time, and can 
be accessed periodically and reenacted through ritual time. In this way, one's world 
is renewed and reempowered. 

Sacrality of nature Eliade held that for homo religiosus ('religious man') sacrality is 
often revealed through the very structures of nature. These include patterns connected 
with the infinity and transcendence of the sky, the fecundity of the earth, the power 
of the sun, the waxing and waning cycle of the moon and of life and death, the 
durability of stones, and the solubility and creativity of water. As such, these 'systems 
of symbolism' form connections with various religious motifs. Examples are the asso- 
ciation of creator deities with the sky, goddesses with earth and moon, and baptismal 
rebirth with water. These and other complexes are described at length in Eliade's 
Patterns in Comparative Religion (first French edition 1949). 

Eliade's approach, which he referred to as the 'History of Religions,' provided a 
set of comparative categories that cut across the particular religious traditions. At 
the same time, for Eliade the study of religion was a study in human creativity, on 
the analogy that religions are complex symbolic universes like great works of art. 
Studying these 'creations,' he thought, would have a culturally de-provincializing and 
rejuvenating effect. 

In most respects Eliade's work is representative of both the strengths and weak- 
nesses of traditional academic comparative religion. Many of the contemporary crit- 
iques of comparativism are critiques of Eliadeanism, and typically include the charge 
that cross-cultural categories illegitimately override significant cultural contexts and 
differences. This and other issues will be addressed next. 

Issues and critiques 

Comparativism is not without its problems and critics. It can make superficial paral- 
lels, false analogies, misleading associations. Many historians believe that the best 
way to study religion is to avoid the application of abstract, generic concepts, with 
their preestablished meanings, and to build a knowledge of a particular religious tradi- 
tion on its own terms, through its own primary sources. Critics of comparativism 
therefore often claim that it is always the specific, not the general, that is 'the real,' 
and that religious phenomena are indelibly embedded in unique sociocultural settings 

Comparative religion 217 

and hence are incomparable. As well, the 'same' theme — such as water or sacred 
space - may have different meanings and functions in different historical contexts. 
The distinctiveness of religious cultures, in this sense, would seem to remain elusively 
off the comparative grid. Briefly, here is a summary of these critical issues: 

Comparativism as suppressing difference Perhaps the most common criticism of cross- 
cultural categorizations is that they suppress or conceal significant difference, giving 
the illusion of homogeneity by making the expressions of other cultures conform to 
the concepts used by the scholar. The comparativist's concepts, the critic maintains, 
are themselves cultural, for example, European or Christian. Other societies are then 
reduced to instances of Euro-Christian classifications. Vague and dubious resem- 
blances are abstracted from rich diversity, and the representation of others is limited 
to only those points which illustrate the scholar's own vocabulary. If a Westerner 
sets out to compare different ideas of 'God' around the world, he already has a stan- 
dard of what to look for and it may be inadequate to describing non-Western 
representations of the superhuman. 

A major advocate of the need for more rigorous contextual analysis in the compar- 
ative enterprise is the University of Chicago scholar, Jonathan Z. Smith. Many of 
his essays (Smith 1982, 1987, 1990) challenge traditional categories and methods of 
comparison. To take one instance, Smith critiques Eliade's interpretation of the sacred 
'pole' of a certain aboriginal Australian tribe. Eliade had maintained that the pole 
represented a kind of world axis that could nevertheless be carried from place to 
place. This portable link with the world above would allow the tribe to remain 'in 
its universe.' Smith's careful examination of the evidence showed that Eliade had 
superimposed the notion of a 'World Center' onto a culture which had very different 
notions of space and no notions of ritual linkages with a world above. The world 
axis idea, Smith pointed out, belonged to other kinds of cultures, like those of ancient 
Near Eastern city states, where political power was highly centralized and manifest 
in temples linking the human and the gods. But the Australian notion of space and 
environment lacked these elements. Smith concluded that 'The "Center" is not a 
secure pattern to which data may be brought as illustrative; it is a dubious notion 
that will have to be established anew on the basis of detailed comparative endeavors' 
(Smith 1987: 17). 

Comparativism not only has been accused of inaccuracy of representation, but has 
been charged with political arrogance: appropriating 'others' to one's worldview and 
depriving them of their own voices. So-called cross-cultural thought can thus become 
a form of colonialist ideology — a means of extending one's own values over all and 
at the same time suppressing the 'subjectivity' of those who differ. According to this 
criticism, comparativism amounts to a kind of conceptual imperialism exercised by 
one culture, class, or gender over others. 

So-called postmodern thinking challenges the notion of objectivity and maintains 
that comparative accounts are grounded in ideologies and used for the scholar's own 
theoretical purposes. Thus, what the comparativist takes as patterns 'out there,' should 
really be seen as strategies for manipulating data for subjective or cultural goals. 

Comparativism as theologicallontological Many comparative religion scholars have strong 
religious interests. Even if those interests are not narrowly sectarian, scholars often 

218 Key approaches to the study of religions 

assume that religion is based on a general divine reality of some kind, which they 
sometimes generically call 'the Sacred' or 'the Holy.' This gives a hierarchic tone to 
religion, whereby 'the Sacred' is understood to be that which 'manifests' itself in so 
many different experiential, ritual, or conceptual domains. Eliade's comparativism, 
too, was interwoven with a vocabulary about 'the sacred' that many critics think 
insinuated a theological reality, and thus an unwarranted, unscientific reference to 
a metaphysical foundation to all religion. 

Comparativism as untheoretical There is also the charge that comparative religion lacks 
scientific value. The argument is that the practice of just grouping together examples 
of a topic does not get at the factor of explanation. In order to contribute to scientific 
knowledge, one would need to show how the presence of religious ideas and practices 

- for example, monotheism, sacrifice, or a certain idea of salvation — occur in and vary 
in relation to specific social or historical conditions. What explains difference and com- 
monality? Anthropologists, for their part, have a long scholarly tradition of compara- 
tive analysis — including statistical analysis — of cross-cultural topics (like kinship), 
with attention to complex variables and co-variables (cf. Naroll and Cohen 1970: 
581—1008); and sociologists of religion have comparable analyses of new religious 
movements. But, it is charged, comparative religion scholarship has yet to incorporate 
and apply the canons of empirical and analytical methods (Martin 2000). 

Some elements of contemporary comparativism 

The critiques have meant that the methods and process of cross-cultural concept 
formation have had to be qualified and defined in more careful ways. Hence, the 
post-Eliadean phase of comparativism has seen emergent articulations and emphases 
that in some ways address and remediate the problems just listed (Smith 1982, 1987, 
1990; Poole 1986; Martin et al. 1996; Martin 2000; Patton and Ray 2000; Numen, 
2001). The following summarizes some of the elements and affirmations found in 
contemporary comparativism: 

1 The first, as mentioned above and as will be shown in the next sections, is that 
comparison is not just a matter of describing commonality, but a tool that may be 
used either to find similarity or difference. Insofar as comparison can be used to high- 
light particulars, it is less subject to the above criticisms (cf. the essay by Robert 
Segal, 'In Defense of the Comparative Method' in Numen 2001: 339-373). 

2 'Common factors' or patterns can be understood as matters to be tested rather 
than assumed or taken for granted. As such, a comparative pattern would be like a 
hypothesis to be explored or a question to be asked in relation to each of its cultural 
examples (cf. Neville 2001). Counter-evidence would be examined, complexity 
acknowledged. The cultural bias of the pattern would be taken into account. 
Thematic inquiry — like the use of any concept that might guide an historian's work 

- would then amount to a starting point for the complexities of research, leading 
toward areas of unforeseen possibilities, rather than an ideological gridwork imposed 
on history once and for all. Certainly comparative analysis is not a substitute for 
historical analysis. They go together. 

Comparative religion 219 

3 Comparison should be clearly based on defined aspects of that which is compared. 
By focusing on and controlling the exact point of analogy, the comparativist under- 
stands that the objects may be quite incomparable in other respects and for other 
purposes. Because two or more things do not appear 'the same' on the surface, or as 
wholes, does not mean that they are not comparable in some ways (cf. Poole 1986). 
There is folk wisdom to the phrase, 'You can't compare apples and oranges,' because 
on the surface and as a whole, they are not 'the same,' yet they are comparable in 
some aspects: both belong to the class 'fruit,' both are edible, both are round and 
similar in size, and so forth. 

4 Another qualifier is that 'cross-cultural' does not necessarily mean universal. A 
comparative pattern can be widespread, general, a 'near-universal' (a familiar anthro- 
pological concept), or applicable to a certain type of culture, without being universal. 
A cross-cultural pattern does not need to appear in all cultures, but only needs to 
recur in relation to certain types or conditions of culture and religious systems. For 
example, not all religions have shamans, priests, savior figures, animal sacrifices, or 
scriptures. But the ones that do have certain recurrent social patterns in common. 

5 Comparison may legitimately proceed by the use of clear cultural norms or proto- 
types, as long as the terms and purpose of comparison are understood. For example, 
one could take something like the Hebrew sacrificial system of the biblical period, 
and without assuming that it is an adequate basis for understanding all other sacri- 
ficial cults, one could investigate other systems that have some resemblances or 
likeness to it. The resemblance could be a matter of degree, not identity. In fact, if 
one examines any comparative pattern carefully, one can often find that it is implic- 
itly based on a particular cultural version or prototype of that pattern. This is typically 
the case with the concept 'religion' itself. When Westerners use the term, what they 
often have in mind is a version of the Christian religion, so that, for example, reli- 
gion signifies a system with a scripture, a creator god, and a concept of salvation. 
While this would be too narrow a way by which to describe everything religious, it 
is not in itself a faulty or uncontrolled comparative enterprise. The problem would 
be if there was no awareness that one was in fact limiting the analysis to the use of 
a particular historical norm or prototype (on the prototype issue see Saler 1993). 

6 Academic comparativism should recognize a distinction between the perspectives, 
purposes and language of the comparativist and those of the insider. This is not to 
assert that the comparativist approach is better or more genuine in some absolute 
sense. Rather, the committed insider and the observing comparativist have different 
purposes. The object of the student of comparative religion is not simply to reiterate, 
replicate or 'understand' what particular religions say or do, though she must also be 
able to do that, but to find relationships and differences among religious traditions 
and to hold these up to view with a more wide-angled lens. These would be link- 
ages that the insider, as insider, may neither see, be able to see, or be interested in. 

To use the famous example of the philosopher William James, a crab does not 
see itself as a crustacean (the latter being an 'outsider's' concept). But the biologist 
does. The scientist sees all the crustacean features (and against a broad evolutionary 
background) that the crab shares with over 40,000 other subspecies. The comparative 

220 Key approaches to the study of religions 

anatomy scholar therefore sees continuities and differences unobservable to the 
single organism, and builds a new vocabulary to describe them. Likewise, compara- 
tivists in religion generate a terminology about 'types' of religious behaviors and 

7 If religion should be studied from all angles, then comparative themes should not 
be limited to religious patterns only. Comparison needs to be versatile — as complex 
as its subject matter. Religion can be analyzed in terms of any concept or topic. The 
'common factor' in comparison can even be a complex combination of factors. For 
example, the relation of sacrifice to patterns of male authority; or the relation of ideas 
of deity to changes in technology in developing countries; or the cross-culturally 
patterned ways fundamentalist movements respond to modernist governments. 

Comparative religion thereby extends its repertory of concepts and patterns, the 
better to do justice to the subject's intimate connection with complex social reali- 
ties, and to connect with some of the same theoretical concerns found in other 
human and social sciences. 

8 In the face of the criticism that religion is always unique to culture and incom- 
parable, there is a recent counter trend to reach behind culture in order to ground 
cross-cultural thinking in the shared behavioral and cognitive patterns of the human 
species per se. The next section illustrates that approach. 

Human behavior and human universals 

Behind all cultures are human beings. One could therefore look for continuities in 
the kinds of things people do as humans and in the processes by which humans 
organize experience, rather than in the specific content of what they believe as insiders 
to their respective cultures. 

Commonality among humans is not merely physical. All humans engage in 
common activities not only by their shared bodily make-up but also by their mental, 
social, and linguistic nature (cf. Brown 1991). They not only sleep, eat, reproduce, 
and react to pain, but they also create societies that form relationships and bonds, 
maintain moral order and codes of behavior, socialize the young, pass on examples 
of ancestral tradition, distinguish between insiders and outsiders, set and defend 
boundaries, perform periodic rites, endow objects and persons with special prestige 
and authority, punish transgressions, experiment with alternative forms of conscious- 
ness, recite sacred histories and genealogies, interpret events and objects, form 
communicative systems with culturally postulated immaterial beings, classify the 
universe, and fashion their own worlds of time, space, language, and obligation. In 
these and many other ways, all human societies build and maintain world-environ- 
ments (Brown 1991: 130-141; cf. also the W. Paden essay in Numen 2001: 276-289). 

Behaviors such as those just cited form building blocks for the construction of 
kinds of religious life. In turn, the religious systems, like the cultures of which they 
are manifestations, fill in these behavioral infrastructures with their local languages 
and meanings. Some scholars, in the context of evolutionary perspective, have even 
begun to compare religious behaviors — like submission, guilt, and reciprocity — with 
their analogues among other natural species (Burkert 1996). 

Comparative religion 221 

An example of one of the noticeable features of religious worldmaking is the activ- 
ity of making certain objects sacred. A point of comparability here is the authorita- 
tive function these sacred objects are given and the strategic absoluteness they convey 
within their respective systems. Thus, within the horizon of the history of religions, 
there appear many such religious worlds, each revolving around its own sacred objects 
— objects that function like the nuclei of a cell — and thus each constructing and inhab- 
iting its own maps and domains. The comparativist finds innumerable accounts of the 
'origin of the world,' of 'the center of the world,' and of 'the one supreme god' — all 
existing variously and independently, side by side, within the larger human tapestry. 
He finds that each religious system has its own past, its own absolute authorities, its 
own calendar, and its own accounts of miraculous events surrounding its founders and 
sacred objects. Each of these maps, for the insider, constitutes the way the world 'is.' 
To the comparativist, however, these are world versions. 

The fact of the plurality of cultural worlds does not mean that there is nothing in 
common and that therefore comparison is hopeless. Rather, paradoxically, it is a uni- 
versal feature of human life to build specific worlds for specific, different environments. 
Such a notion of world formation supplies a basis for comparative analysis because it 
constitutes a universal human activity against which cultural differences may be 
recognized and in terms of which variants may be contrasted (Paden 1994: 51—65). 

Common form, different content 

The distinction of common, transcultural forms of behavior and different cultural 
content (including meanings to the insider) then becomes important. Consider three 

Sacred histories Each religion forms its own history of the world. The comparativist 
observes that there are as many of these 'origins' — with their prestigious founders and 
special founding events — as there are cultures. For insiders to these traditions, such 
'historical' origins are absolute. Every past rises up around key events and figures, not 
because it is objectively true by standards of modern historiography, but because it rep- 
resents the given, operating tradition and memory of a particular community. Even 
within the large Christian and Buddhist traditions, each denomination has its own 
special lineages of authority and models of history, just as villages, neighborhoods and 
families will have their own patron saints, salient memories, and ancestral icons. 

These histories share common functions. They account for that on which the life 
of the group depends and the self-identity of the society; they create lines of trans- 
mission and authorization of power from the founders and exemplars; and they provide 
exemplary, idealized models for how to live. 

But difference comes into the picture insofar as each group sees the past in terms 
of its own idea of what life is based on or its own idea of what is sacred. Navaho 
myths link the origin of humans with the origin of corn; Masai myths address the 
origin of the gift of cattle; ancient Babylonian myths deal with the founding deeds 
of their god-king Marduk; mystical sects describe their versions of the fall and 
redemption of the soul. 

Sacred histories also showcase different social structures. They give superhuman 
authorization to particular social boundaries and roles, imperial descent, ethnic 

222 Key approaches to the study of religions 

identity, or collective destinies. Many, such as the Judeo-Christian scriptures, include 
detailed genealogies. A well-known Hindu myth describes the origin of the four main 
castes from the body of a primal being, the brahmans emerging from the head, and 
the manual labor caste from the feet. The miraculous appearance of the 'Virgin of 
Guadalupe' to an indigenous Indian in 1531 is at once a national, ethnic, and religious 
'foundation account' for Mexican identity. 

Thus, 'myths of the past,' or 'sacred histories,' encoded either in scripture, oral 
tradition or ritual reenactments, not only have the common functions of indexing 
memory and guiding or inspiring behavior, but may also be read as representations 
of different social values and meanings to be investigated in contextual detail. 

Periodic renewal rites Cultures not only represent pasts, they also recollect them in 
periodic rituals. Here, the values and venerated objects of the culture are celebrated 
and are imprinted on the life of the group's members through the participatory media 
of the festival — such as unusual forms of fasting, feasting, music, dance, or other 
impressive collective performances. 

Again, while the function of these celebrative actions is similar, the content is 
not. In fact, only when the common factor is identified can the differences become 
appreciated. One of the important areas of difference is that of the social values that 
are meshed with the rites. For example, in traditional China the New Year festival 
highlighted the foundational role of family tradition and relationships. But in tradi- 
tional South Asian Buddhist communities, major annual observances feature the 
mutually supportive relationship of the monks and laity. Annual rites in Pygmy 
culture feature the sanctity of the forest, but in Eskimo cultures the focus of honor 
is the sea mammals, and in ancient Athens the festivities celebrated the patron of 
the city, Athena. The Passover tradition for Jews focuses on the distinctive history 
of that people; and for Christians, Easter celebrates the transformative power of their 

As renewal rites are not just expressions of religion, but of the broad activity by 
which humans 'build' time, they naturally appear in nonreligious versions, too, such 
as in national celebrations which honor the founders and accomplishments of one's 

Each version of renewal rites adds a context to the comparativist's perception of 
the others. And just as the versions bring out differences, by juxtaposition, with each 
other, they also add resonance to the common theme. 

Again, any one of these festivals can be read for the way it reveals different mean- 
ings to different social classes within the society. Festivals often show patterns of 
status, social inclusion and exclusion, kinship, gender roles, local traditions, and other 
forms of social identity. Rites may be experienced with quite different cultural 
messages according to gender, age, or degree of marginalization. 

Sacred order A third example of a general human universal form that serves compar- 
ative study while highlighting 'difference' is the notion of sacred order. All cultures 
draw lines, identify boundary transgression, and punish violations. All establish cate- 
gories that require defense and monitoring. All maintain and defend a system of 
allowable and unallowable behavior; all have some version of authority, law and 
tradition. If order is violated, all exercise techniques for addressing the infraction. 

Comparative religion 223 

But no two orders are the same. The content of what constitutes order and disorder 
is relative to the sociocultural system. Boundaries and their negotiation are mingled 
with complex social norms related to ideas of honor, obligation, kinship, sexuality, 
selfhood and any number of value configurations peculiar to any society. While there 
are some specific, recurring patterns of restrictive behavior among diverse cultures, 
such as the prohibition against incest, murder, and theft, it remains that much that 
is obligatory or violative pertains to each culture's own norms. These might include 
notions of purity about food, social status, ritual, or protocols of the hunt. Classical 
Confucianism identified some 3,000 forms of 'proper' observance for as many different 
occasions in life. 

Summation Thus, comparative perspective allows for a move 'downward' toward 
shared, panhuman features of behavior, and at the same time 'upward' to cultural 
specifics and differences, with all their particular inflections of texture and significa- 
tion. Either or both directions may serve the comparativist's purposes. The upward 
revelation of specificity means that historical particularities are not just insignificant, 
homogeneous versions of given structures — as so much dough to be rolled out and 
merely replicated by a given, patterned mold. Rather, history is the constant recre- 
ation of new versions of world and therefore new definitions and versions of history, 
time and space, identity, community, and the general 'order of things.' 

There is some contrast here, then, to Eliadean comparativism. The latter cited 
examples of 'sacred space' (for example) in order to show how they embodied patterns 
like 'the Center,' or the 'world axis.' But the examples typically illustrated what one 
already knew about the spatial archetypes. Hence, Eliade mentions a New Guinea 
shrine to illustrate how its roof 'represents the celestial vault,' and how its four walls 
'correspond to the four directions of space,' thus making the shrine an example of 
how space is made to mirror the totality of the cosmos (Eliade 1959: 46). But in 
Eliadean (and before that, Frazerian) comparativism, the many listed examples of a 
theme tend to be essentially replicas of the same thing. By contrast, a sociologically 
sensitive comparativism looks also for why spaces are different and for the ways 
they show nuances of social, ethnic and political identities. Hopi kivas, Quaker 
meetinghouses, modern suburban megachurches, Mormon Temples, Buddhist relic 
shrines, and Australian aboriginal 'markings' reflect very specific cultural values and 

Religious patterns in secular life 

From the above, it would follow that comparative religion has implications for the 
general understanding and explanation of human behavior; and also the other way 
around, because religious patterns are in many ways 'natural' human behaviors writ 
large and given a sacred basis. All cultures, not just religious ones, have special histo- 
ries, places and times; all have renewal rites, sacred order and boundary marking. 
Even more specific 'forms' like pilgrimage, sacrifice, rites of passage, rites of purifica- 
tion, states of trance, ethical precepts, are not limited to religious domains. The 
notion of sacredness itself is a broader concept than religion: modern arenas where 
the factor of sacredness can be found include social justice, individual rights, and 
national sovereignty. 

224 Key approaches to the study of religions 

In these ways, the comparative religion endeavor invites reflection about any 
cultural system and its continuities with human worldmaking generally. The anthro- 
pologist Colin Turnbull thus discovered revealing aspects of adolescent 'passage' 
customs of British school boys after he had lived in the Pygmy culture and observed 
its puberty rites. Studying other cultures can thus have the reflexive effect of noticing 
the myths and rituals of one's own for the first time. 

Traditionally, American college religion departments offered just one course on 
the 'Non-Christian Religions,' while all the other offerings would be on theological 
and historical facets of the ruling Judeo-Christian tradition. Today, in many academic 
settings, and particularly in secular, public universities, this disproportion is being 
redressed. Indeed, one of the challenges of the comparative study of religion now is 
to be able to evenhandedly apply its perspectives to the study of biblical traditions. 

The comparative study of religion is evolving. It develops along with a culture's 
knowledge of the world. As such, comparative perspective is not a static entity, with 
lists of patterns and parallels pinned down for all time, but an ongoing process of 
thought and discovery. 


Brown, Donald E., 1991, Human Universals, McGraw-Hill, New York. A useful history and 

analysis of the concept of cultural universals, with extensive annotated bibliography. 
Burkert, Walter, 1996, Creation of the Sacred: Tracks of Biology in Early Religions, Harvard 

University Press, Cambridge, MA. 
Eliade, Mircea, 1958, Patterns in Comparative Religion, trans. Rosemary Sheed. World Publishing 

Company, Cleveland. Eliade's classic, encyclopedic account of recurrent types of religious 

1959, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion, trans. Willard R. Trask. Harcourt, 

Brace, Jovanovich, New York. Widely-read summary statement by the leading compara- 

tivist of the last generation. 
Frazer, James C, 1963, The Golden Bough, abridged edn, Macmillan, New York. Condensed 

version of Frazer's landmark work, first published in 1890, for those interested in the history 

of comparative religion. 
Jones, Lindsay, ed. 2004, Encyclopedia of Religion, 2nd edn, 15 vols, Macmillan, Detroit, MI. 

Major source of articles, with bibliographies, on comparative topics, and a thorough updating 

of the original 1987 edition (ed. by Mircea Eliade). 
Martin, Luther H, 2000, 'Comparison,' in Willi Braun and Russell T. McCutcheon, eds, 

Guide to the Study of Religion, 45-56. Cassell, London. Statement about the need to link 

comparison with scientific generalization. 
, M. Hewitt, E.T. Lawson, W. Paden and D. Wiebe, 1996, 'The New Comparativism in 

the Study of Religion: A Symposium,' in Method and Theory in the Study of Religion, VIII/1: 

1-49. Debate on the prospects of a post-Eliadean comparativism. 
Miiller, F. Max, 1872, Lectures on the Science of Religion, Charles Scribner Co., New York. Seminal 

lectures on the importance of comparative perspective by a founder of the discipline. 
Naroll, Raoul and Ronald Cohen, eds, 1970, A Handbook of Method in Cultural Anthropology, 

The Natural History Press, New York. Includes valuable essays by anthropologists on issues 

of comparative method, pp. 581-1008. 
Neville, Robert Cummings, ed. 2001, Ultimate Realities: A Volume in the Comparative Religious 

Ideas Project. The State University of New York Press, Albany, NY. A major, collaborative 

study of the process of adjudicating comparative concepts with historical data. 

Comparative religion 225 

Numen: International Review for the History of Religions 2001, vol. 48, no. 3. Brill, Leiden. An 
issue wholly dedicated to contemporary perspectives on comparison. 

Paden, William E., 1994, Religious Worlds: The Comparative Study of Religion, 2nd edn, Beacon 
Press, Boston. General study of key patterns and variations in religious 'worldmaking.' 

Patton, Kimberley C. and Benjamin C. Ray, eds, 2000, A Magic Still Dwells: Comparative 
Religion in the Postmodern Age, The University of California Press, Berkeley. Essays by four- 
teen contemporary scholars on the importance of comparative perspective in relation to 
the challenge of postmodernism. 

Poole, Fitz John Porter, 1986, 'Metaphors and Maps: Towards Comparison in the Anthropology 
of Religion,' Journal of the American Academy of Religion 54: 41 1-457. A perceptive, sophis- 
ticated analysis of comparative method by an anthropologist of religion. 

Saler, Benson, 1993, Conceptualizing Religion: Immanent Anthropologists, Transcendent Natives, 
and Unbounded Categories, Leiden, Brill. Extensive review of resources for conceptualizing 
comparative categories. 

Sharpe, Eric C, 1986, Comparative Religion: A History, 2nd edn, Open Court, La Salle, 111. 
A useful, informative overview of the development of comparative religion as a modern 

Smart, Ninian, 1996, Dimensions of the Sacred: An Anatomy of the World's Beliefs, University 
of California Press, Berkeley. An accessible text demonstrating seven key categories by 
which religions can be studied (ritual, mythic, experiential, doctrinal, ethical, social, and 

Smith, Jonathan Z., 1982, Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown, University of Chicago 
Press, Chicago. Chapters 1 and 2 review and pose critical issues about comparative method. 

1987, To Take Place: Toward Theory in Ritual, University of Chicago Press, Chicago. 

1990, Drudgery Divine: On the Comparison of Early Christianities and the Religions of Late 

Antiquity, University of Chicago Press, Chicago. Issues of method in comparison by way of 
a critique of Christian interpretations of Hellenistic-period religions. 

Part 2 

Key issues in the study 
of religions 

Chapter 12 


Darlene M. Juschka 

What is gender? What is sex? What is gender/sex? 

Historical prelude 

Gender as a category of analysis has operated in a variety of ways depending on 
pedagogical location or historical period. For example, in sociological studies gender 
consists of the study of sex roles in pre- industrial and industrial societies. Or, histor- 
ically in Europe, gender has simply been the natural designation of the sexes as 
opposite since the eighteenth century. However, in the 1960s gender became a central 
category of feminist studies. So for example, in feminist language studies gender 
becomes the means by which to look at the erasure of women by the generic term 
'man' and the thingiflcation of women as the object of the male gaze. 

The development of gender as a category of analysis can be seen in the work of 
Margaret Mead and Catherine Berndt, for example, as a slow transformation of the 
belief in natural sex-roles and sex-role assignments to an analysis of the social 
construction of these roles. In other words, people like Mead and Berndt began to 
think about how the labor and roles given to men and women may have less to do 
with biological certainties and more to do with societal demands. These anthropol- 
ogists examined women's ritual activities and beliefs among pre-industrial peoples, a 
focus that had been hitherto overlooked by their more androcentric colleagues. They 
found that the women they investigated tended to operate in a separate female sphere 
with rituals, symbols, and myths centered on such concerns as fertility and birth, 
economics, healing, or the well-being of the society, e.g. tending ancestors, the land, 
or myth cycles. They also became aware of two significant issues in the study of 
human society: one, the erasure of women and their activities from all fields of know- 
ledge; and two, that women and men's gendered practices, e.g. work, parenting, status, 
were in fact social roles that were secondarily assigned as sex roles. Under the influ- 
ence of first- and second-wave feminism, 1 then, the analysis of women as gendered, 
gender relating to both the oppression of women and creating a new subject of study 
based upon women, was established. 

What is gender? 

Gender is something we all know, or think we know. We immediately categorize peo- 
ple (or most everything, e.g. language, animals, planets, or inanimate objects) on the 
basis of their gender. We categorize ourselves repeatedly by ticking the appropriate 

230 Key issues in the study of religions 

box on a form to indicate our gender. We are careful to enter the proper washroom, 
and we choose particular apparel appropriate to our gender. We presuppose gender as 
it is manifested in all aspects of our lives. As such, we do not question gender. 
However, under the influence of second-wave feminism gender as a category of analy- 
sis emerged. Gender, in this formulation, was seen to be a way to understand the 
oppression of women by men. The category of gender, then, was developed in order 
to think about how social systems, cultures, and religions, for example, were gender 
coded and how these codes impacted upon women and men. This coding was seen to 
define, regulate, and circumscribe the group named/marked women. Equally the cod- 
ing was seen to define and regulate the group called men, but as man and human were 
synonymous, it afforded this group privileges it did not afford women, e.g. men as 
priests in Catholicism. 

From here, then, gender ideology, which was seen to construct and mystify (locate 
in nature) inequalities between men and women, became an operative analytical tool 
in feminist theorizing. It was used to examine religious, social, national formations 
and operations, and further, under the sign of postcolonialism and/or international 
feminisms, to examine political, social, cultural relations between nations and coun- 
tries. For example, in feminist postcolonial theorizing it became apparent that often 
countries and their populations colonized by the West were feminized and, as such, 
were understood as irrational and highly sexual in comparison to the masculinized 
West. A good example of this is Rudyard Kipling's poem 'The White Man's Burden' 
published in 1897. In response to this feminization, the elite men of colonialized 
locations often demanded the subjugation of the women of their nation via a strict 
gender differentiation. A good example of this is the discourse around the veil in 
twentieth-century Middle Eastern identity politics. Gender ideology was also used to 
examine economic, historical, medical, and ethical discourses, to name but a few, 
and their contribution to the production of knowledge. This knowledge, then, that 
seeks to explain human social, political, cultural organization, and production was 
determined to be gender coded. 

In the development of gender as a category of analysis, gender was separated from 
sex. Sex, male and female, or the two-sex model, was seen to be a natural fact or 
the biological reality that gender overlays. What is assumed in such a formulation 
of gender is that sex is real and gender is artificial, or sex is an ahistorical (outside 
of history) natural fact of human nature, while gender is a social and historical 
construction built upon that natural fact. Linda Nicholson (1994) comments that 
when gender and sex are thus formulated sex is not dealt with as a conceptual cate- 
gory, but a biological truth. As such, then, gender becomes the conceptual category 
that is hung upon the 'coat-rack' of sex. Formulated as such, sex is fixed and 
immutable while gender is social, historical, and mutable. 

In this perspective, then, an assumption resides: that sex is neutral or carries no 
inherent value. Gender, however, carries value and this value is subsequently placed 
on 'normatively' sexed bodies. Indeed, these sexed bodies are not just human bodies, 
but can include all plants and animals. When such proofs as plants and animals are 
used, they are then called upon secondarily to uphold the truth of the naturalness 
of the category of sex. However, in due time, the mid- to late- 1980s, this kind of 
understanding of sex and gender, or what is call the gender/sex dimorphism was 
called into question (see Gilbert Herdt 1994). 

Gender 23 1 

Complicating the category of gender 

Judith Butler (1990) and Christine Delphy (1996) also argued that treating sex as a 
fixed and immutable truth of human existence not only confuses the analysis, but 
also expresses a necessity to adhere to a closely organized system of beliefs, values 
and ideas without question or thought. In Delphy's effort to make apparent how 
taxonomies are products of the social and therefore equally socially encoded, she 
pushed the analysis to include sex, male and female and the variations therein, as a 
social construct. She argues that sex, like gender, is a social and historical category 
and not a natural category. Sex is not a natural category because we already under- 
stand it in accordance with gender. We read sex through the lens of gender. As 
such, sex is a social and historical category. She further argued, as we read sex through 
a gender lens, gender precedes sex and not the reverse (1996: 30). Therefore, our 
understanding of men as physically strong and women as physically weak is a socially 
created truth enforced by, for example, girls being discouraged from developing 
muscles and boys being encouraged to develop muscles. 

Such an argument would appear to be counterintuitive. But following the devel- 
opment of the category of gender in academic discourses, Delphy suggested that 
gender as a concept was founded upon 'sex roles' — a line of analysis that looks at 
the division of labor and the differing statuses of men and women. This line of 
thinking, developed primarily in sociology and anthropology, was picked up and used 
by feminists. The category of sex, then, in this reasoning, consisted of biological 
differences between the male and female while gender was the cultural manifesta- 
tion of these differences or, as she states, 'a social dichotomy determined by a natural 
dichotomy' (1996: 33). Delphy asked; why it is assumed that sex would give rise to 
any sort of classification? Her argument proceeded from the position that: 

sex itself simply marks a social division: that it serves to allow social recogni- 
tion and identification of those who are dominants and those who are dominated. 
That is that sex is a sign, but that since it does not distinguish just any old thing 
from anything else, and does not distinguish equivalent things but rather 
important and unequal things, it has historically acquired a symbolic value. 

(1996: 35) 

Delphy's position was clear: both gender and sex are social constructions. 

Speaking of sex and its history 

In 1978 the first volume of Michel Foucault's Histoire de la Sexualite (Paris: Gallimard) 
in French and English The History of Sexuality (New York: Pantheon) was released. 
The series in the end would consist of three volumes, and as the title promises, the 
category of sexuality would itself be historicized. To historicize sex and sexuality was 
to recognize that different periods of time produced different conceptualizations of 
sex and sexuality. Foucault's work has implications for all those who think about the 
categories of gender and sex. Following Foucault have been many writers who 
continue to think about changes and breaks in the discourses of sex, sexuality, and 

232 Key issues in the study of religions 

Thomas Laqueur (1990), influenced by Foucault, examines the social and histor- 
ical nature of the category of sex. He argued that a one-sex Aristotelian-Galenic 
model of human sexuality was operative prior to the 1800s in Europe. In this model 
of sexuality female was misbegotten and genitally inverted and male properly begotten 
and genitally extroverted. A one-sex model, then, was used to define the natural 
state of the female and male of the human species. Subsequent to this the two-sex 
model emerged wherein female and male sexes are understood to be opposite: 

By around 1800, writers of all sorts were determined to base what they insisted 
were fundamental differences between the male and female sexes, and thus 
between man and woman, on discoverable biological distinctions and to express 
these in a radically different rhetoric . . . Thus the old model, in which men and 
women were arrayed according to their degree of metaphysical perfection, their 
vital heat, along an axis whose telos was male, gave way by the late eighteenth 
century to a new model of radical dimorphism, of biological divergence. 

(1990: 5-6) 

The implication of Foucault and Laqueur's (see also Blackwood 1999, Brown 1988) 
historicizing of sex and sexuality was the dislodging of sex from the realm of nature to 
locate it in the realm of the social, at least for those who were convinced. Foucault 
made apparent that sexuality, and sex therein, as much as gender, was a politically 
charged category that was intimately related to power. Foucault (and Laqueur), in his 
historical— political foray into sex, wished to discover or rather uncover how sex and 
sexuality were discursively formed: 'What is at issue, briefly, is the over-all "discursive 
fact," the way in which sex is "put into discourse'" (Vol. 1, 1990: 11). Sex, then, like 
gender is a discursive construction with implications of power. Although Foucault does 
not read sex through the sign of gender as Delphy does, he equally recognizes that sex 
is a category that is central to 'the order of things' and as such is a way that we organ- 
ize ourselves. Like gender, then, sex has intimate relations to the dissemination of 
power in discourses, and religions have often been powerful and authoritative dissem- 
inators of the 'truth' of gender and sex. For example, in Christianity during the witch- 
craze or witch-hunt in Europe (1450—1700) women were understood to be more 
inclined toward evil because of their 'normative' femaleness. Signed as inclined toward 
evil and in league with the devil, all ages of females were tortured and murdered in 
numbers estimated conservatively to be 200,000. Or during the same period in India, 
women who outlived their spouses were encouraged or forced to commit Sati. Sati is 
the act of a widow being burned alive with the body of her dead husband. 

Elaborating a model of gender and sex 

Gender, as an academic category of analysis, has been greatly debated since the 1980s. 
The majority of analyses focused on two categories, gender and sex, as indicated 
above. In this kind of analysis, gender is examined as a social category and sex as a 
biological category. Although this split rendered gender very useful as a category of 
analysis for purposes of the study of religions, the theoretical difficulties this split 
raised began to be discussed in studies of sexuality, under the influence of Foucault, 
and in feminist theorizing. With theorists like Foucault it became apparent that sex 
was itself socially constructed and demonstrated a historicity of its own. The work 

Gender 233 

produced by feminist academics in religious studies called into question the biolog- 
ical givenness of sex (e.g. the female as inherently evil and weak and the male as 
inherently good and strong), as a category of analysis and, furthermore, sought to 
theorize gender and sex as produced in and by the social (e.g. male as inherently 
good meant he was closer to deity and therefore naturally in positions of power such 
as a religious leader). But, by grounding gender/sex in the social and material two 
significant problems have emerged. 

The first difficulty encountered, notably discussed in the 1970s, was that gender 
and sex were dealt with as separate formative elements of human identity so that 
sex was seen to establish kinds of bodies, while gender was thought to subsequently 
shape those bodies. In this understanding sex marked bodies as differentiated (fixed) 
while gender invested such marking with meaning (mutable). Here gender is seen 
to follow naturally from sex, or gender and sex are seen as superficially connected 
in a consecutive fashion, e.g. male is to man and female is to woman. What is not 
clearly theorized, then, is how gender and sex are interrelated and dependent upon 
each other for definition. Understanding that gender and sex are interrelated and 
dependent means they need to be understood as related to each other by the tension 
and interaction (dialectics) between the two categories. In this kind of understanding, 
gender and sex are related in a formative and primary fashion, e.g. man is to male 
as woman is to female. 

The second problem that emerged in the 1980s was the lack of theorizing the 
interdependence of the categories of gender and sex. Instead gender and sex were 
presented as if they were interchangeable categories or simply synonyms. In this kind 
of analysis the dialectical (tension and interaction) mechanisms of gender and sex 
are erased. This theoretical position meant that gender ideology, or the power oper- 
ations of social inequalities based on gender and sex, could not be adequately analyzed. 

Understanding gender and sex as oppositional categories, the layering of gender 
and sex, or the blurring of gender and sex are all equally problematic. Without a 
clear theorizing of the dialectical relationship between gender and sex, studies 
continue to produce work wherein one or both the categories are reified (understood 
as things rather than concepts) and therefore resistant to a thoroughgoing analysis. 

The difficulties encountered in the theorizing of gender as a category of analysis 
can be related to two basic issues: (1) essentialism (the sexed body remains fixed 
according to evolutionary requirements, e.g. man the hunter, female the gatherer) 
versus constructionism (the sexed body is mutable reflecting the social roles and lives 
situated in particular social and historical surroundings); and (2) the lack of a theory 
of gender and sex. 

Some of the most successful studies of gender/sex have emerged from two areas of 
study: feminist cultural studies (the study of cultural productions from a feminist 
deconstructive perspective, e.g. film, media, and written text) and queer theory 
(deconstruction of the discursive production of sexuality and gender, e.g. challenge 
to heterosexuality as normative sexuality as presented in Genesis 1:27). In both of 
these locations there has been the recognition that the categories of gender and sex 
each require careful delineation and intersection. Feminist theorists in the study of 
religion have directed their attention toward this challenge and the analysis of gender 
and sex, as ideology (gender/sex), should prove a fruitful trajectory for the continued 
development of the categories of gender and sex. 

234 Key issues in the study of religions 

The importance of gender/sex in the study of religion 

If, in the study of religion, the scholar is to understand the structural development 
of the system under study, and is to understand the means by which that system is 
communicated, if s/he is to grasp why deity in the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), for 
example, takes on both masculine and feminine attributes, then certainly how gender 
and sex are understood and used to express belief about existence in ancient Hebrew 
systems of religious belief is necessary to know. Examining the complexities of 
gender/sex, as produced in the social (e.g. myth) and signed on the level of the meta- 
physical (e.g. symbol) and enacted on the level of the biological (e.g. ritual), means 
engaging the study of religion as a human signing system. A human signing system 
refers to language, art, stories, and traditional practices and the like used to express 
beliefs about existence, the world, the human, male and female, or deity. 

To engage religions as human signing systems requires paying attention to such 
things as who is speaking, in other words, the person, the group or institution that 
is generating the discourse, and to whom the discourse is directed. By tracking the 
who and the whom in the communicative event, by paying attention to what is at 
stake, and investigating what kinds of persuasions proliferate one is better able to 
elucidate their understanding of social systems. Toward this end, then, one will want 
to examine gender/sex as they are delineated through religious discourses. An example 
of this kind of analysis is Helen Hardacre's study of a Japanese new religious move- 
ment Buddhist Risshokooseikai. 

In her study Hardacre relates how Buddhist Risshokoseikai had been co-founded by 
a woman, Naganuma Myoko, but after her death in 1957 there was an internal power 
struggle. Out of this struggle emerged a new myth of origin, one that erased Myoko 
as a co-founder of the group. Instead her male co-founder was given sole recogni- 
tion. At one particular gathering of the women of the Risshokoseikai, who had come 
together in order to celebrate the anniversary of their female founder's death, the 
importance of Myoko within the movement was undercut directly by reference to 
her gender/sex. At this gathering a male elder, in support of the new male genealogy 
of Risshokoseikai, spoke to these women about gender/sex and to do so drew on gender 
ideology to validate the new male genealogy. This was done, of course, in order to 
assert the legitimacy of masculine domination. To do this he naturalized men's domi- 
nation over women via reference to femaleness and maleness in the 'state of nature': 

You women know that in the animal world, it is the males who are the most 
powerful. Take the gorilla for example - did you ever hear of a female gorilla 
leading the pack? . . . And it is the males who are prettiest. Whoever paid any 
attention to a drab female duck? . . . Being the stronger and most powerful, natu- 
rally the males are the most attractive as well. What I'm trying to tell you today 
is that it's the same way with human beings. It's the men who are superior, and 
the women who are behind all the trouble in the world. 

(Hardacre 1994: 111) 

Delineated in a specific gender-based narrative, there is a necessity to understand 
how gender/sex operate on the sociopolitical level in order to know what is at stake 
for the speaker and the listeners. Clearly the male elder was attempting, via his use 

Gender 235 

of biology, to locate men over women. But equally that the women of the group had 
come together to celebrate their female founder's death anniversary indicates that 
they were resisting the new myth of origin that located the founding of Risshokoseikai 
with only its male co-founder. 

Equally, when doing a gender/sex analysis another aspect that requires attention 
is awareness that the discourse of the hegemonic elite (those limited few who have 
control and power over the social, economic, political, cultural, and religious 
domains) is not the sole or only representation of the religion or culture. Often the 
views, perspectives, religious activities, and so forth of a small elite group of men 
have been, and continue to be, used as representative of the entire group. In this 
formulation any contestation and differences within the group related to class, race, 
or gender/sex are erased. To ignore such social categories as status, gender/sex, sexu- 
ality, race, or class that speak about power and that point to the particulars of social 
formations is to ignore the social and historical parameters of the system of belief 
under study. Engaging gender and sex as interrelated categories of analysis in the 
study of religion clarifies the object of one's study. 

In the past, under the influence of enlightenment epistemology, wherein the cate- 
gory of the human was the origin and basis for much theorizing done in the study 
of religion, complexity and diversity within an analysis were erased in order to ensure 
the subject of European philosophy, man. This man haunted, and in some measure 
continues to haunt, theorizing in religious studies, anthropology, sociology, phil- 
osophy, history, or science. At the same time, those studies that have shifted from 
this perspective continue to remain marginal in the university. Focusing solely on 
this man not only misses the social complexity and the structures that hold the reli- 
gious edifices in place, but also distorts the analysis. Paying attention to gender/sex, 
sexuality, race, and class allows us to theorize the structures and understand better 
the multifaceted complexity of human social bodies. 

The gendering of religions 

The intersection of gender/sex and religions has been of interest to a number of 
theorists who study religions. Over the last five decades excellent work that looks at 
the ideological implications of gender/sex in the study of religion, or how gender 
and sex effect and affect the practice of religion, has been produced. These kinds of 
studies share a common interest in examining how religion has been one method to 
ensure the subordination of women in a variety of social and cultural locations, and 
the absence of women as living persons within the development and dissemination 
of religions. Such studies have sought to reveal the power imperatives and to bring 
women as subjects back into the various religions under study. From here those inter- 
ested in the intertwining of gender/sex and religion have developed analyses that 
examine historical and social shifts in a variety of cultures as registered by gender/sex, 
the political efficaciousness of gender/sex, and linked to this, the intersection of 
gender/sex with colonization. The interrelated categories of gender and sex provide 
a means and a way to understand not only the how and why of religions, but equally 
the how and why of social organization and the manufacturing of culture in and of 

236 Key issues in the study of religions 

Genderlsex and religious ideologies 

The work of gendering religions has been taken up by a variety of feminists studying 
religions and theology. In the late 1960s and into the 1970s the work of Mary Daly, 
Rosemary Radford Reuther, and Elisabeth Schiissler Fiorenza presented some of the 
earlier gender interventions into the study of religion. Each of these feminists did 
triple duty in terms of their work in the study of religion. First, they brought tools 
of analysis to the study of religion in order to think about how these systems of belief 
were used to legitimate and shape the social body. Second, each then focused on 
women in the religious system under analysis in order to make apparent women's 
activities and contributions. Third, each then furthered their analyses by interre- 
lating patriarchal imperatives with women's contributions and activities in order to 
think about religion. 

Daly's approach, after her rejection of Christianity, was to propose a two-world 
system located in most if not all societies. One part of this two-world system she 
named the foreground, which was a patriarchal construction operating in terms of 
patriarchal relations. The foreground was the site of women's exploitation and oppres- 
sion, and detrimental to women's well-being. The second aspect of this two-world 
system was the Background, which was the real world that was obscured by the patri- 
archal world of the foreground. It is, Daly argued, in the Background that women 
can find their true being. This dualist world system, in large measure, reflects aspects 
of what is called feminist standpoint epistemology. 

Feminist standpoint epistemology developed by Nancy Hartsock, Dorothy Smith, 
Patricia Hill-Collins (black feminist standpoint), and Mary Daly, among others, takes 
the position that women, as an oppressed group, are in a position to have a clearer 
and less distorted picture of reality as they are outside of, or marginal to, the domi- 
nant system of power relations and therefore considerably less invested in maintaining 
it. According to standpoint theory, the picture of reality developed in patriarchy 
(and all oppressive systems) is an inversion of reality and those who are marginal to 
the system are able to see this inversion. Further to this, as patriarchy is invested in 
maintaining its vision of the world, which empowers it, it is unable to see beneath 
the surface. Only the oppressed can clearly determine the operations of this inver- 
sion, based upon their experiences, and envision a means to move beyond it. 
Institutionalized religion, understood as patriarchal religion, Daly argues, is one of 
the pillars that support the foreground. God the father is merely an inversion of the 
reality of the Goddess and a means and a way to ensure that the patriarchal reality 
of the foreground continues to endure. 

Schiissler Fiorenza's contribution to the gendering of religion came in the form 
of uncovering patriarchal imperatives found in the New Testament and other 
texts related to the study of early Christianities. This method she called a feminist 
hermeneutics of suspicion, which exposes the intention to locate in the heavens and 
in nature the gender ideologies produced by the group. So for example, Paul's letter 
to the Corinthians (I Corinthians 11: 1-16), when discussing men's and women's 
hair related to normative male and female being, makes apparent Paul's operative 
gender ideology, which is his own and is one that emerges from his social location 
and has little to do with either deity or nature. Certainly Paul supports his under- 
standing of normative male and female being by making recourse to deity and nature. 
Much as in the Buddhist Risshokoseikai example, Paul's understanding of normative 

Gender 237 

male and female appearance and behavior calls on nature to legitimate his view. In 
this passage Paul understands that it is a disgrace for women to have short hair and 
dishonorable for men to have long hair. Working within the honor— shame oriented 
culture, the maintenance of social standing is intimately linked to honor and for 
women to attempt to appear masculine (short hair) and therefore elevate their status 
is a disgrace, while for men to appear feminine (long hair) means a loss of social 
status and therefore dishonor. Male and female hairstyles, then, are culturally coded 
and reflect a gender ideology. 

Second, she sought to make apparent women's activities in the early Christian 
communities through a feminist hermeneutics of remembrance. In this gender- 
sensitive methodology she would examine not only the actions and contributions of 
men, but also those of women in these communities. Finally, by combining the 
hermeneutics of suspicion and remembrance, she developed what she termed a 
feminist critical hermeneutics of liberation. Through this model she hoped to be 
able to reclaim Christian history for concerned women and men of all nations, 
colors, and sexual orientation without engaging in Christian apologetics. 

Rosemary Radford Ruether's gendering of religion also challenged patriarchal 
imperative of religions, particularly Judaism and Christianity. She too noted the 
absence of women and set upon a project of reclaiming and reconstructing women's 
Christian histories. She too developed a project of rereading and rewriting in order 
to reconceptualize a new Catholic Christianity as a system of belief that creates a 
positive space for concerned women and men of all nations, colors, and sexual orien- 
tation. By gendering religion she, like Daly and Schiissler-Fiorenza, sought not only 
to understand the ideological impact of religion on women, and construct histories 
of women and religion, but also to move the study of religion toward developing 
analyses that reflected more honestly the social and historical realities of human 
systems of meaning. 

Genderlsex and religious practices 

The kinds of analyses indicated above represent some of the work of feminists in the 
study of religion through the 1970s and 1980s. Feminists, having learned the need 
to reread and rethink religious and historical texts, went on to think about how the 
interrelated categories of gender/sex shaped the knowledge and the systems of belief 
that women produced. A particularly influential thinker working in this frame is 
Susan Starr Sered and her comparative text Priestess, Mother, Sacred Sister: Religions 
Dominated by Women published in 1994- There were of course other texts published 
in a similar vein, for example, Diane Bell's text Daughters of the Dreaming published 
in 1983. In such texts, theorists took gender/sex as their cue and began to examine 
the religious orientations, creations, and inclinations of women. At the center of 
their studies was an interest in women's symbolic discourses and how women's 
symbolic discourses might differ from men's. 

Sered's introductory chapter in Priestess, Mother, Sacred Sister briefly relates how 
the author engages the category of gender specifically in order to think about what 
might be central to women's religiosity and how this might be different from men's 
religiosity. This question, circling around the category of gender/sex assumes from 
the outset that if indeed there is a difference between men's and women's religious 

238 Key issues in the study of religions 

beliefs and actions, that this difference could be related to their differing social lives. 
She notes that cross-culturally women of differing social groups share concerns such 
as childbearing and motherhood, which of course intersect with economic, social, 
physiological, and psychological concerns. Connected to this explicitly is child rearing 
and related to child rearing is healing. These appear to be issues that are often at 
the center of women's religiosity and as such suggest a gender/sex difference. 

However, as Sered notes, men and women's religiosity are more alike than they are 
unalike. Although concerns may demonstrate gender/sex differences, both women and 
men make recourse to superordinate beings (singular or plural), both use ritual to imag- 
inatively interact with these beings, and both have central myths that organize the 
system of belief. As female and male are not opposite in sex, so women's and men's 
religions are not opposite in religion. Sered (1994: 8-9) suggests that when women 
and men's religiosity do differ, it is related to how superordinate beings are imagined, 
e.g. Jesus as feminine as among the Shakers of the American Colonies; the how and 
why of engagement with superordinate beings, e.g. through possession to heal the 
afflicted as with the Zar cult in the northern Sudan; the shaping and understanding 
of ritual actions, e.g. women as ritual leaders; and the way that they engage such issues 
as existence, e.g. women's ritual power as social power as with the Sonde secret soci- 
ety in Sierra Leone and Liberia. But equally important to women and men's religios- 
ity is the issue of power. Religiosity can and does confer power, whether on the basis 
of gender/sex, status, race, prestige, or age and is a means by which power is delin- 
eated or contested. Because of the propensity of gender/sex to be related to power, it 
is necessary to analytically engage gender/sex head-on when studying religion. 

Gender/sex and performance 

Judith Butler in her formative text Gender Trouble, first published in 1990 (10th 
anniversary edition 1999), equally suggests that it is gender that supports the category 
of sex and not the reverse. Following up on this, she makes an extended and complex 
argument demonstrating what is at stake politically when the category of sex is left as 
fixed and immutable beneath the category of gender, heterosexism. Linked to hetero- 
sexism, she argues, is the idea that individuals are trapped, not by biological impera- 
tives as feminism had challenged this by socializing the category of gender, but now 
by cultural imperatives, since feminists had left the category of sex untheorized. She 
states that '[t]he institution of a compulsory and naturalized heterosexuality requires 
and regulates gender as a binary relation in which the masculine term is differentiated 
from a feminine term, and this differentiation is accomplished through the practices 
of heterosexual desire' (30). Butler clearly and succinctly demonstrated how gender in 
feminist theorizing continued to uphold 'normative' ideas concerning sex and gender 
to the peril of a feminist analysis and its claims to be liberating. 

Added to this keen observation, Butler made another equally important observa- 
tion that gender/sex is performed. Butler, a feminist poststructuralist, underscored in 
her text the political imperative affiliated with the categories of gender/sex, and asked 
what might be the effects of such an imperative. This question allowed her to conjec- 
ture how identity itself was a political category with gender/sex central to this identity. 
Linked to this, then, was the necessity to perform gender/sex, so that those who 
ascribe to (are ascribed to) the category of female must perform as feminine or 

Gender 239 

those who ascribe to (are ascribed to) the category male must perform as masculine. 
Furthermore, those ascribed as male, but desiring to the female, could perform as 
feminine and those ascribed as female, but desiring to the male, could perform as 
masculine; although this was done at their peril, as they would be disciplined for 
transgressing gender boundaries. Butler argued '[t]here is no gender identity behind 
the expressions of gender; that identity is performatively constituted by the very 
"expressions" that are said to be its results' (33). 

In the field of religious studies, particularly ritual, the instability and performativity 
of gender/sex are immanently apparent. Most visible in rites such as female and male 
circumcision, one sees the instability of sex as a natural category since the cutting of 
the body's genitals, the primary site of gender/sex, is used to properly fix the sex of 
the initiate. Furthermore, one notes the necessity to perform as woman or man in 
the acceptance of the cut that moves the child who would shriek, to the adult who 
would capture it between clenched teeth. 

Genderlsex and historicity 

In the text Spirited Women: Gender, Religion and Cultural Identity in the Nepal Himalaya 
(1996) Joanne C. Watkins, an anthropologist, is concerned with the 'interplay 
between changing trade patterns, gender meanings, and cultural identity in Nyeshang 
society' (4). Her concern, among other things, is to chart the changing gender 
ideology under the pressure of trade with the larger world. The interrelated cate- 
gories of gender and sex, formulated in relation to religious beliefs, cultural systems 
and imperatives of kinship relations, are shifting and that these shifts register change 
in the social body and in the smaller social identity of the group (Buddhist). In this 
kind of formulation, gender/sex, then, provides a window not only into understanding 
a cultural system, but provides a way to chart changes within a cultural system. It 
is this latter function, a window for understanding social and cultural change, for 
example, that has led some to assume that gender/sex was a means by which to deter- 
mine religious fundamentalism, rather than a means by which to chart change. In 
other words, rather than assume a change toward more austere gender relations marks 
a shift toward fundamentalism, one should recognize that gender/sex actually becomes 
a means and a way to mark change in itself. Gender and sex, then, as they are both 
social categories are historical categories that reflect changes in the belief system over 
time (see also Laura L. Vance, Seventh-day Adventism in Crisis: Gender and Sectarian 
Change in an Emerging Religion (1999) who also registers changes in the social body 
by using the category of gender/sex). 

Genderlsex and politics 

The categories of gender/sex are a central concern in Patricia Jeffery and Amrita 
Basu's edited text Appropriating Gender: Women's Activism and Politicized Religion in 
South Asia (1998). In this text, as the title suggests, gender ideology acts as a cate- 
gory to register political activism. Basu states that 'in the past decade or so, religion 
and gender have become increasingly intertwined in the political turmoil that 
envelops South Asia' (3). Women, the gendered category, have, in some locations, 
become the repository of 'religious beliefs, and the keepers of the purity and integrity 

240 Key issues in the study of religions 

of the community' (3) felt to be under attack by the increasing globalization gener- 
ated by such institutions as the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, the 
International Monetary Fund, and the United Nations. As noted above, gender and 
sex are not static categories and indeed register shifts and change in social bodies 
and, as the authors note, can become the means by which to initiate or resist social 
change. For example, the state, which can take on the masculine in relation to the 
feminized social body, can act as a paternalistic force that oversees the social body 
ensuring its proper functioning. It can be the state, as evinced in the United States 
in the early twenty-first century, that calls upon a particular gender ideology, hetero- 
sexual and masculine in this instance, to shore up and protect a social body it 
perceives to be under attack. The twin towers, symbols of American masculinity, 
attacked and felled in September of 2001, initiated a hypermasculine response of 
excessive militarism that was launched against the feminized Middle Eastern 'other.' 
'Gender provides,' as Basu rightly comments, 'an extremely fruitful lens through which 
to interpret the actions of the state and of ethnic and religious communities' (5—6). 

Gender/sex: where to from here? 

As I hope I have made clear in the above, the interrelated categories of gender and 
sex are infinitely useful categories by which to interrogate and understand religions. 
In many ways gender/sex is a signing system that acts as a window that allows the 
viewer to see the complexities of human existence. Gender/sex, although still not a 
central category of analysis in the study of religions for many theorists, must be 
further sounded to push our understanding of human social and cultural systems. 

For example, in my own work I have sought to make apparent the mythological 
ground of gender ideology. This has been a process of revealing or bringing to con- 
sciousness the binarism that continues to fuel the ways in which we understand gender/ 
sex. To first uncover the logic of binarism, noting that a significant root binary in most 
cultural systems is the male/female binary, and then to underscore the linguisticality of 
binarism allow for the socialization and historicization of binaries and subsequently, 
gender/sex. Yet this does not fully reveal just what is at stake in gender ideology. 

First, gender ideology includes sex as a mythologized discourse. The foundational 
quality of myth - its apparent rootedness in nature - means that the social, histor- 
ical, and political aspects of gender and sex are elided. As I have indicated, both 
gender and sex, as dialectically related categories, must be submitted to a thorough- 
going social and historical analysis. Second, what is at stake in gender ideology is 
power. Although this would seem evident, evidently it is not. 'I am a man' or 'I am 
a woman' seem not to be political statements that mark power. But indeed they do; 
such terms mark social power. Therefore to analytically engage gender/sex is to under- 
stand a significant aspect of the complexity of human signing systems mapped through 
that which we call religion. 


1 First-wave feminism refers to women's political and social action to provide women with 
both political and civil rights in the west activities in the mid- 1800s and early 1900s. 
Second-wave feminism refers to women's political, social, cultural, and legal activities and 
analyses, beginning in the late 1950s and continuing to the present, toward addressing the 

Gender 241 

oppression on women. Both first- and second-wave feminisms are terms used to designate 
the rise and resurgence of western feminism and do not refer to the rise and resurgence of 
feminisms of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in, for example, India, the Middle East, 
or Latin and South America. Third-wave feminism is a current term that is used to reflect 
a shift toward technology, globalization, and international feminisms that began in the 


Bell, Diane (1993 [1983]). Daughters of the Dreaming. 2nd edn. Minnesota: University of 
Minnesota Press. 

Bell's comprehensive and thoughtful text is an ethnographic study of Australian Aboriginal 
women's rites, symbols, and myths. What Bell makes apparent is the importance of Australian 
Aboriginal women's ritual work toward the development and maintenance of the Dreamtime. 

Blackwood, Evelyn and Saskia E. Wieringa (eds) (1999). Same Sex Relations and Female Desires: 
Transgender Practices Across Cultures. New York: Columbia University Press. 
This text is a fine collection of historical, sociological and ethnographic studies of trans- 
gendered practices. Focused upon women's same-sex desire, the category of gender is shown 
to be intimately connected with and foundational for the category of sex, while sexuality 
intersects with both sex and gender in a definitive fashion. 

Brown, Peter (1988). The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early 
Christian Society. New York: Columbia University Press. 

Brown's text is a wonderful engagement with the category of gender/sex in the formative 
years of Christianity. Under the influence of theorists such as John Winkler, Brown makes 
apparent the historicity of the categories of gender and sex, and how these categories, under- 
stood differently in the ancient world, were central to the ideological formation of a 
'normative' Christianity. 

Butler, Judith (1999 [1990]). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New 
York and London: Routledge. 

This is a formative and pivotal text that is understood to be one of the founding texts of 
queer theory. This text engages the feminist category of gender, pointing to the short- 
comings of the theorizing of the category of gender and underscoring the heterosexism that 
is prevalent in this theorizing. 

Delphy, Christine (1996 [1993]). 'Rethinking Sex and Gender.' In Diana Leonard and Lisa 
Adkins (eds), Sex in Question: French Materialist Feminism, 30-41. London: Taylor & Francis. 
Delphy's article is a logical and coherent analysis of the category of gender as it has oper- 
ated in feminist theorizing from 1970 until 1990. She engages the concept of gender and 
demonstrates the limited nature of ignoring sex as a social and historical category. 

Foucault, Michel (1990 [1978-1984]). The History of Sexuality. 3 vols. Robert Hurley (trans.). 
New York: Vintage. 

Foucault's trilogy intersects with the category of sexuality toward historicizing and politi- 
cizing it. Beginning with seventeenth-century Europe in volume one, he then interrogates 
sexuality and erotic literature in volume two and ends by interrogating sexuality in rela- 
tion to Greco-Roman philosophy in his third volume. 

Hardacre, Helen (1994). 'Japanese New Religions: Profiles in Gender.' In John Stratton 
Hawley (ed.), Fundamentalism and Gender, 111-133. New York: Oxford University Press. 
This article is an interesting and well-documented discussion of the category of gender/sex 
and how it is used in religions to limit the political and social power of women in Buddhist 

242 Key issues in the study of religions 

Herdt, Gilbert (ed.) (1994). Third Sex, Third Gender: Beyond Sexual Dimorphism in Culture 
and History. New York: Zone Books. 

This anthology of articles is a marvellous delineation of the multiplicity of the categories 
of gender, sex, and sexuality. Linking all three categories in an effort to make apparent 
how each is reliant upon the other, this anthology is a cross-cultural and multi-historical 
analysis of human systems of meaning and social organization. 

Jeffrey, Patricia and Amrita Basu (eds) (1998). Appropriating Gender: Women's Activism and 
Politicized Religion in South Asia. New York and London: Routledge. 

This is a nicely developed anthology of articles that examine the political aspects of both 
gender/sex and religion. In these articles authors note, for example, how the state and 
women's groups employ the categories of gender/sex, linked to religious beliefs, for political 

Laqueur, Thomas L. (1990). Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. Cambridge, 
Mass. and London: Harvard University Press. 

Laqueur's text engages the categories of gender and sex and examines how their under- 
standing shifted in the period of the 1800s in medical discourses. He links this shift to 
political change in Europe during this time period and changes in the conceptualization of 
the human under the influence of enlightenment philosophy. 

Lincoln, Bruce (1989). Discourse and the Construction of Society: Comparative Studies of Myth, 
Ritual and Classification. New York: Oxford University Press. 

A pivotal text that engages ritual, myth, and classification demonstrating their historicity, 
their political potency, and their importance toward constructing social bodies that subse- 
quently impact on individual bodies. 

Nicholson, Linda (1994). Interpreting Gender. Signs, 20, 1: 79-105. 

A well-developed analysis of the use of the category of gender in the work of second-wave 
feminists. Nicholson makes apparent the unexamined idea of the immutability of sex as a 
biological category which resides beneath the concept of gender as a socialized category. 

Sered, Susan Starr (1994). Priestess, Mother, Sacred Sister: Religions Dominated by Women. New 
York and Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

Sered's cross-cultural examination through ethnographic literature of women's religiosity is 
a well-informed and thoughtful text. Her clear description of the multiplicity of women's 
religions and the rituals, symbols, and myths developed and utilized by women, allows her 
to speculate on common threads that link these variegate practices toward answering the 
question of how gender/sex intersects with and shapes religious beliefs. 

Vance, Laura L. (1999). Seventh-day Adventism in Crisis: Gender and Sectarian Change in an 
Emerging Religion. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press. 

This study, based on official and unofficial publications and interviews, examines gender, 
sex, and sexuality and their relations to the worldview of Seventh-day Adventists. In line 
with this, the author examines concepts of femininity, masculinity, and sexuality and their 
relation to social practices. 

Watkins, Joan (1996). Spirited Women: Gender, Religion and Cultural Identity in the Nepal 
Himalaya. New York: Columbia University Press. 

This interesting ethnographic study examines the changing gender ideology among the 
Nyeshangte, a Tibetan Buddhism group found in the Himalayan Highlands. The author 
theorizes upon the intersection of modernism and capitalism with the cultural of the 
Nyeshangte and the subsequent changes in their understanding of gender and sex. 

Chapter 13 

Insider/outsider perspectives 

Kim Knott 

Many students who have come to study religions at the university where I work have 
been introduced to the subject through a course called 'Religious Lives'. The purpose 
of the course is to develop an understanding of religions and their study by means 
of an examination of the autobiographies and biographies of a variety of religious 
people — what we might here call 'religious insiders'. The students come as 'outsiders' 
to these stories; but they also have their own stories, their own subjective experi- 
ences which they are asked to reflect on and write about during the course. They 
are the 'insiders' in these accounts. The process of thinking about other people's reli- 
gious lives as well as their own raises many critical questions and issues for discussion 
during the course. Can we ever fully understand someone else's experience? What is 
the difference between an account of a religion by an insider and one by an outsider? 
Does translation from one language to another bridge a gap or create a barrier between 
the person telling the story and the one reading it? Additionally, we find ourselves 
considering the nature and limits of objectivity and subjectivity, 'emic' and 'etic' 
positions, 'experience-near' and 'experience-distant' concepts, empathy and critical 
analysis, the effect of personal standpoint, and the process of reflexivity. We even 
find that some of the lives we read about make us ask whether it is actually helpful 
to distinguish between insider and outsider perspectives. We will come to these 
matters in more detail shortly, but my purpose in listing them here is to show the 
range of concerns that are related to the insider/outsider debate, many of which have 
been at the heart of the study of religions since its inception as a discipline distinct 
from theology. The debate challenges us by raising questions about the extent and 
limits of our knowledge and understanding. It invites us to consider whether or not 
our field of study is scientific. It is central to our methodology. It has an ethical 
dimension, and a political one. 

Insider/outsider perspectives in the history of the study of religions 

These questions came to the fore from the mid-1980s in a highly charged debate 
about the nature of Sikh studies and the contribution and motivation of particular 
scholars writing on Sikh religion. 2 Who could understand and represent Sikh tradi- 
tions? What were the personal motivations, epistemological standpoints and 
ideological interests of those who studied Sikh history and theology? 3 As we shall 
see towards the end of this chapter, the issues in this debate eventually extended 
beyond the problem of the insider/outsider, but the problem was certainly of central 

244 Key issues in the study of religions 

importance early on. For example, in 1986, a collection of papers entitled Perspectives 
on the Sikh Tradition was published. Several of its authors strongly criticised Western 
scholarship on Sikhism, focusing particularly on the work of W. H. McLeod, who 
was held to have undermined the Sikh faith as a result of his historical and critical- 
textual approach to Sikh tradions (Singh 1986: 10; Grewal 1998: 126-31). Then, in 
1991, in a review of the work of several Western scholars, including McLeod, Darshan 
Singh raised a key issue: 

The Western writers' attempt to interpret and understand Sikhism is an outsider's 
or non-participant's endeavour . . . Primarily, religion is an area which is not 
easily accessible to the outsider, foreigner or non-participant. The inner meaning 
of a religion unfolds only through participation; by following the prescribed path 
and discipline. 

(1991: 3) 

As we see from this case, the question of who can reliably understand and present 
a religion is contested. Darshan Singh and the authors of Perspectives, while accepting 
that Western outsiders have played a significant role in the development of Sikh 
studies, are suspicious of their motives (whether Christian or secular in origin), crit- 
ical of their academic methods, and favour — by extension - the contribution of 
insiders to such studies. The strengths and weaknesses of participation and non- 
participation by scholars in the religions they study is a subject I shall return to 
shortly, but first I shall consider how, from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, 
Western scholars of the kind criticised above tackled the question of studying religions 
- both their own and those of others. 

Emerging in the West as a field of enquiry with different objectives and methods 
to theology, the proponents of the early study of religions 4 drew attention to its 
scientific, objective and comparative character. They stressed the value of impartial 
scholarly accounts, and the development of appropriate conceptual tools, theories 
and methods. Writing in 1873, Max Miiller stated that, as the object of study, reli- 
gion should be shown reverence, but that it should also be subjected to critical 
scholarship. 5 Twenty years later Cornelius Tiele, stressing the need among scientists 
of religion for objectivity but not judgement about the forms of religion, considered 
whether such scholarship was best done by believers or non-believers, concluding 
that, 'It is an error to suppose that one cannot take up such an impartial scientific 
position without being a sceptic; that one is disqualified for an impartial investiga- 
tion if one possesses fixed and earnest religious convictions of one's own' (Tiele from 
Elements of the Science of Religion (1897-9), in Waardenburg 1973: 99). He distin- 
guished between the private religious subjectivity of the individual and his or her 
outward impartiality as a scholar of religion. Tiele was not asserting that only scep- 
tical non-believers or outsiders could study religions; rather, he was suggesting that 
those who were themselves religious were fully able to be impartial in their studies. 
This view, that those studying religion should set to one side their subjective experi- 
ence and cultural baggage, and take an objective position with regard to the other, 
prevailed for nearly a century. 

These issues were given consideration by other scholars, especially those associ- 
ated with the phenomenology of religion, particularly Kristensen, van der Leeuw and 

Insider/outsider perspectives 245 

Otto in Northern Europe, and later Eliade and Cantwell Smith in North America 
and Ninian Smart in Britain. They held the view, to quote Kristensen, that all reli- 
gious phenomena were 'unique, autonomous and incomparable', yet capable of 
understanding by means of empathy, that is, by reliving in one's own experience that 
which appears to be alien (Kristensen from The Meaning of Religion in Waardenburg 
1973: 391). While it was impossible to apprehend religion or the sacred in and of 
itself, it was possible to understand its manifestations or appearances (van der Leeuw 
1963). 6 The underlying aim of the phenomeno logical approach was to understand — 
by empathetic and imaginative re-experience — the insider position while refraining 
from forming a judgement about its truth or falsity (that being the domain of the 
theologian or philosopher). 

The contemporary form of the insider/outsider debate, which has focused on the 
limits and desirability of such an approach, has raised different issues. A number of 
critics have argued that the phenomenology of religion has been implicitly theolog- 
ical (Segal 1983; Wiebe 1985), even a spiritual technique in its own right 
(McCutcheon 1997). Its assumptions about the essential, fundamental and totalising 
nature of the sacred, and its frequent adoption of Christian categories and types for 
the theorisation of religion have been deemed to be problematic (Fitzgerald 2000). 7 
Critics have questioned the rhetoric of impartiality and critical distance associated 
with phenomenology (Flood 1999). 

Two rather different approaches to the study of religions have emerged in the West 
in recent decades. One is avowedly secular and scientific. 8 It values an objective, 
outsider stance. It starts from the view that we cannot assume a common human 
nature across which categories such as religion and experiences of the sacred are 
shared. Instead, the social nature of religion and its capacity to be studied like other 
ideologies and institutions must be acknowledged. The aim of the scholar of religion 
should not be to get inside the experience and meaning of religious phenomena, but 
to build upon the benefits of critical distance to explain religion from the outside. 
The second approach focuses upon reflexivity. 9 Rather than requiring greater objec- 
tivity, as the previous approach does, it requires greater awareness on the part of the 
scholar about the dialogical nature of scholarship. While not being necessarily opposed 
to phenomenology, its criticism of that approach has been that the exponents of the 
latter were insufficiently aware of their intellectual and personal standpoint vis-a-vis 
others. They failed to take sufficient account of the effect of their position — either 
as individuals, often themselves religious, or as members of privileged groups of 
scholars, often Western and male — on their understanding of religion. Critics of this 
take a reflexive stance which requires that, as scholars, they research and write 
consciously from within their context and standpoint, whether as insiders or outsiders. 
Some couch this criticism in terms of post-colonialism, stressing the importance of a 
scholarly engagement with issues of identity, power and status (Shaw 1995; Flood 
1999; King 1999; Donaldson and Pui-Lan 2002). 

McCutcheon (1999) sought to categorise these responses to the insider/outsider 
problem as follows: (i) the autonomy of religious experience, which he associated 
with the phenomenological approach; (ii) reductionism, exemplified by those taking 
a scientific, objective outsider stance; (iii) neutrality and methodological agnosticism, 
as adopted by those such as Ninian Smart who relied on insider accounts without 
evaluating their truth or falsity; and (iv) reflexivity. 10 McCutcheon's presentation 

246 Key issues in the study of religions 

and discussion of these responses was introduced with reference to two terms which 
derive from the work of the linguist, Kenneth Pike. The emic perspective arises 'from 
studying behaviour as from inside the system' (Pike 1967: 37); the etic perspective, 
as from the outside. The former, then, is an attempt, 

to produce as faithfully as possible - in a word, to describe - the informant's 
own descriptions . . . The etic perspective is the observer's subsequent attempt 
to take the descriptive information they have already gathered and to organize, 
systematize, compare — in a word redescribe — that information in terms of a 
system of their own making . . . 

(McCutcheon 1999: 17) 

These terms are of central importance for understanding the perspectives of insiders 
and outsiders. 

Researching religious groups: insider/outsider perspectives 
and participant observation 

Having dealt briefly with how some of the issues relating to the insider/outsider 
debate have been theorised, I shall turn now to a range of examples in order to 
investigate how these issues have been dealt with in practice. Our focus moves, then, 
from the theoretical to the methodological. For this purpose, I have developed a 
diagram to portray insider and outsider positions based on a model of participant/ 
observer roles from the social sciences. The term 'participant observation' has 
commonly been used in anthropology to refer to the process of conducting research 
by living within a community over a period of time, participating in its life and 
observing its activities and use of symbols in order to develop an understanding of 
its meaning and structures (Davies 1999). This anthropological strategy need not 
detain us here. Rather, it is the four role conceptions of complete participant, partic- 
ipant-as-observer, observer-as-participant, and complete observer — first identified by 
two sociologists called Junker and Gold in the 1950s - that we shall consider here 
with reference to insider and outsider perspectives (Gold 1958: 217). They may be 
plotted on a continuum as follows: 


Complete Observer-as- Participant- Complete 

observer participant— as-observer- participant 

If we take this diagram as illustrating the roles of those involved in researching 
religious groups, we can see that a number of positions are possible. I shall take the 
polar opposites first, followed by the two mid-way positions. At one end are those 

Insider/outsider perspectives 247 

who are fully involved in religious activity as participants. 11 They write about reli- 
gion as insiders. Objectivity is not their purpose; critical distance is not their aim. 
They are scholars who write about their religion, with the benefit of an insider's 
knowledge, as engaged participants. They are unapologetic about this position, often 
believing that insiders like themselves provide the most informed and reliable 
accounts of their religion. I will look to the work of Fatima Mernissi, a Muslim 
scholar, for an example of this. Mernissi (1991) does not make a general case for 
the value of participant insider accounts, but rather shows how such accounts arise 
from particular standpoints and motivations. There is no single, uncontested view of 
what constitutes a religion like Islam; there are many differing participant accounts. 

Moving to the far left of the diagram, we will turn to the role of the complete 
observer. Here we might expect to find a scholar who researches and writes about 
religion from the outside, eschewing any kind of participation. This is a position 
often associated with the psychology and sociology of religion, particularly with 
studies in which the researcher observes by means of the scientific use and analysis 
of questionnaires or structured interviews. My example is the fascinating study by 
Festinger, Riecken and Schachter carried out in the mid-1950s that revealed what 
happened to a religious group when its prophecy failed. We shall see how the 
researchers attempted to reproduce the complete observer stance in a situation where 
participation turned out to be unavoidable. 

The role of the observer-as-participant will be examined in relation to Eileen 
Barker's stance in The Making of a Moonie (1984). From this we will discern a line 
of continuity with the phenomenological approach outlined earlier, particularly with 
the strategy of 'methodological agnosticism' commonly associated with the work of 
Ninian Smart (1973). 

We will turn finally to those scholarly participants who adopt the role of observer 
in the midst of their own religious communities. They generally adopt a more crit- 
ical stance than those who are complete participants, while remaining of the faith 
and sharing in the benefits of an insider's knowledge of the beliefs and practices of 
the community. For an understanding of this role we will examine the reflections 
of Samuel Heilman, a modernist Jew and sociologist writing in the 1980s before 
turning to those scholarly participants who have developed a reflexive and post- 
modernist critique of the insider/outsider problem (Pearson 2002; Collins 2002; 
Mandair 2001). 

(a) Fatima Mernissi: a complete but contentious participant? 


The majority of books written about religions are written by those who participate 
in them. There are numerous publishing houses associated with religious institutions; 
many groups have in-house newsletters and journals. In all of these, people of faith 
share with their co-religionists accounts of religious experience, religious ideas, 
responses to scripture, and thoughts about religious behaviour, ethics and the public 

248 Key issues in the study of religions 

demonstration of their faith. In addition, most religions have a class of scholars who 
reflect on, speak and write about their doctrinal, philosophical, legal or textual tradi- 
tions, and may interpret them according to the needs of the time, or codify them 
so that they may be remembered and used in the future. Those who comprise such 
classes of scholars (theologians, rabbis, muftis, pandits and so on), often men, are by 
definition participants and insiders. 

I have chosen Fatima Mernissi to illustrate the complete participant role, notably 
the stance she takes in Women and Islam: An Historical and Theological Enquiry (1991). 
As a Muslim feminist sociologist, she is hardly the obvious choice. Mernissi herself 
cites a case where she was denounced, by the editor of an Islamic journal, as a liar and 
misrepresentative of Islamic tradition. She is certainly not an authorised Islamic leader 
nor a trained theologian, but, as one who writes as a Muslim with the deliberate inten- 
tion of recovering the Islamic past in order to understand women's rights, she evi- 
dently counts herself as an insider. What is more, she has a clear sense that this is not 
just a matter of private belief, but of legal requirement and communal identity: 

It is time to define what I mean when I say 'we Muslims'. The expression does not 
refer to Islam in terms of an individual choice, a personal option. I define being 
Muslim as belonging to a theocratic state . . . Being Muslim is a civil matter, a 
national identity, a passport, a family code of laws, a code of public rights. 


It is the denial of such rights to women in Muslim states that is of concern to 
Mernissi and that passionately engages her as a Muslim, a feminist and a scholar, as 
a result of which she turns her intellectual powers and scholarly training to the 
Hadith, the collections by later scholars of the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. 
She is a critical religious insider tackling an issue of significance to contempo- 
rary Muslim women by recovering the foundational stories of the women around 
Muhammad and interrogating the misogynism of later interpretative accounts. In the 
preface to the English edition to her book, she writes: 

We Muslim women can walk into the modern world with pride, knowing that 
the quest for dignity, democracy, and human rights, for full participation in the 
political and social affairs of our country, stems from no imported Western values, 
but is a true part of the Muslim tradition. 


Mernissi's is an emic, but not uncritical perspective. Rather than using the 'experi- 
ence-distant' language of either comparative religion or sociology, she uses the 
'experience-near' language of Islam, stressing, in particular, the centrality of the 
concept of hijab for an understanding of Muslim civilisation. 12 Although she has not 
received the training associated with the ulama, she draws on the same sources of 
authority, though emphasising different stories and offering variant readings. 

Although her book is not directed explicitly at a non-Muslim audience, Mernissi 
is clearly aware of the dominant Western critique, which has tended to see Islam as 
undemocratic and oppressive of women, and is keen to show that, in its foundational 
stories, there are 'matters dangerous to the establishment, of human dignity and equal 

Insider/outsider perspectives 249 

rights' (ix). She wishes to make clear to other Muslims that taking up the cause of 
women's rights does not place her outside Islamic tradition or Muslim society. She 
eschews the role of the secular feminist outsider and embraces that of participant in 
the narration of Islamic memory (10). 

Can a single example, like that of Mernissi, point to a plurality of cases? I believe 
so. In choosing Mernissi — an insider who cites and disputes the views of many other 
Muslim insiders — I have indicated the complexity of insider perspectives. Choosing 
a feminist insider as an example has raised the issue of contestation between different 
insider-scholars within a single religion. 

(b) The struggle to be the complete observer 


From an emic account in which experience-near concepts are to the fore, we now 
move to an etic one in which the language of social science is used to explain psycho- 
logical behaviour resulting from religious belief. In the final part of their study of 
what happens to a messianic group when prophecy fails, Festinger, Riecken and 
Schachter (1956) examined the methodological difficulties that arose when trying 
to sustain the stance of the complete observer in a qualitative study of a dynamic 
religious community. 13 At the time when they conducted their study, the key prin- 
ciples of social scientific research were objectivity, neutrality, the ability to repeat 
experiments, to demonstrate the validity of their results and to generalise from them. 
Many sociologists and psychologists used a quantitative approach, for example, by 
developing and administering a questionnaire. 14 Festinger and his co-researchers 
decided that such an approach was inappropriate for examining the cognitive and 
behavioural responses of a group of believers to 'undeniable disconflrmatory evidence' 
(4). Rather, it was essential to observe a group closely during such a process. Had it 
been possible to set up an experiment of this kind in a laboratory, behind glass, the 
researchers would no doubt have done so. 

In fact, what they did was to await signs (in the media) of prophetic group activ- 
ity, gain covert admittance to a group, and then observe the behaviour of its members 
from the inside. They adopted insider roles, as seekers who were 'non-directive, sym- 
pathetic listeners, passive participants who were inquisitive and eager to learn what- 
ever others might want to tell us' (234). Such undercover work was deemed necessary 
to avoid alerting the group to the fact that it was being researched, and thus to avoid 
influencing the very beliefs, attitudes and responses they wished to observe. 

Although the researchers were scientific outsiders, to the prophet, Mrs Keech, and 
her followers, they appeared to be complete participants. They were, however, 
students and staff from a variety of university psychology and sociology departments 
trained in observational methods. As such, they were conscious of the need to satisfy 
social scientific conditions, though they found themselves departing from 'the ortho- 
doxy of social science in a number of respects', notably, in being unable 'to subject 
the members of the group to any standardized measuring instrument, such as a 

250 Key issues in the study of religions 

questionnaire or structured interview' (249). Further, they unintentionally reinforced 
members' beliefs, e.g. by seeming to confirm the view that they had been sent to 
join the group for a special purpose. They found it impossible to avoid discussing 
the belief system with members, answering calls from enquirers, and being seen as 
messengers (from the Guardians) by the movement's leaders. 15 All of these put them 
in a position of influencing those people they were supposed to be observing. 

Despite these difficulties, When Prophecy Fails is an etic account as its purpose, 
hypothesis, methods, analysis, reporting and audience are evidently social scientific 
and not religious. While the researchers took seriously members' beliefs and responses, 
they did so only in so far as these were data to be collected and evaluated. The issue 
of their truth or falsity was not mentioned. Neither did the authors formally reflect 
on whether they accepted any of the beliefs of the group. 16 Rather, they pretended 
'to be merely interested individuals who had been persuaded of the correctness of 
the belief system' (249). Their pretence as insiders raises ethical questions about 
whether and in what ways the subjects of research should be informed and involved 
in decisions about the research process. The use in the book of terms such as 'covert', 
'detective' and 'surveillance' heightens the distinction between the outsider-observer 
on the one side (in control, invisible, investigating), and the insider-observed on the 
other (passive, highly visible, exposed to detailed investigation), thereby raising the 
issue of power in the scholarly study and presentation of religious groups. 

Arguably, this case fails to do full justice to the observer role because the demands 
of the research required the scholars involved to compromise their position as 
outsiders (by necessitating that they pretend to be participants). Nevertheless, we 
have been able to see how difficult it is for even the most determined observers to 
remain uninvolved, impartial and scientific when examining the subject of religious 
belief at close quarters. In the next section, we will consider whether an observer- 
as-participant who is known to and accepted by insiders encounters fewer problems. 
What are the characteristics of this stance? What difference does it make to the 
research if the participating observer owns up to being an outsider? 

(c) In neutral: the observer-as-participant 



From the start of her investigation, Eileen Barker rejected the possibility of under- 
taking covert research on the Unification Church on both practical and ethical 
grounds. 'It was known that I was not a Moonie. I never pretended that I was, or 
that I was likely to become one' (1984: 20). 

I usually found my time with the movement interesting, and I grew genuinely 
fond of several individual Moonies, but at no time could I believe in the 
Unification version of reality. On the other hand, I could not accept the picture 
of the movement that outsiders kept telling me I ought to be finding. 


Insider/outsider perspectives 251 

Barker's purpose in investigating the Unification Church, or 'Moonies' as they were 
frequently called, was to answer the question, 'Why should — how could — anyone 
become a Moonie?' (1). Little was known about them in the mid-1970s (despite the 
fact that the movement had been founded in 1954, in Korea), except for what was 
gleaned from negative media coverage about the leader and the conversion strate- 
gies of the movement which tended to stimulate fear and fascination rather than a 
desire to learn or to be informed. Sceptical of both the movement's self-image and 
the media account, Barker became an authorised observer whose research method 
was one of engaged participation. She lived in Unification centres, attended work- 
shops, listened to members, engaged in conversations and asked questions. 17 Her 
stance, by her own admittance, had its strengths and weaknesses. 

Being known to be a non-member had its disadvantages, but by talking to people 
who had left the movement I was able to check that I was not missing any of 
the internal information which was available to rank-and-file members. At the 
same time, being an outsider who was 'inside' had enormous advantages. I was 
allowed (even, on certain occasions, expected) to ask questions that no member 
would have presumed to ask either his leaders or his peers. 


Barker borrowed a term from the work of Max Weber to identify her approach to 
understanding why people became Moonies: 'Verstehen is a process of inquiry during 
which the researcher tries to put himself in other people's shoes or ... to see the 
world through their glasses' (20). Although she contextualised this with reference to 
the social sciences, it had much in common with the empathetic approach favoured 
by the phenomenologists of religion reviewed earlier in this account: Kristensen, van 
der Leeuw and, latterly, Ninian Smart. It was Smart who first used the term 'method- 
ological agnosticism' to signal the need for neutrality and the bracketing out of truth 
claims and judgements in research on religion. Barker shared this view, believing 
that 'passing value judgements should be an enterprise that is separate from social 
science' (36). Rather, she hoped to bring together what she saw as 'an objective 
factual account of the history and beliefs of the movement' (10) with diverse voices 
from within and outside it. 

Barker's etic account, interspersed with the experiences of Moonies, ex-Moonies, 
non-Moonies and anti-Moonies, represented a conscious attempt to translate Moonie 
reality and values for those unfamiliar with them. She found that she was able to 
stay in touch with outsiders' often unsympathetic and quizzical attitudes while 
becoming engrossed in Moonie reality by regularly re-reading her research diary. She 
was reminded of her own journey from ignorance to knowledge about the move- 
ment. She believed in the attempt to bridge the divergent perpectives of insiders 
and outsiders, and saw this as an appropriate scholarly task. Furthermore, she held 
that it was 'perfectly possible to see things from other people's points of view without 
necessarily agreeing that they are right' (35). At the same time, she recognised that 
there were those on both sides who believed that neutrality was impossible, even 

The methodological agnosticism identified by Smart — and pursued by Barker — 
dominated the study of religion in the 1970s and 1980s. It upheld the dichotomy 

252 Key issues in the study of religions 

between inside and outside, positing the need for a value-free translator who would 
bridge the two perspectives. Barker exemplified the role of observer-as-participating 
translator. But could an outsider ever fulfil this role? 18 Could such a scholar really 
be agnostic, or would his or her act of observation necessarily call such a stance into 

(d) The participant-as-observer comes of age 


As we saw in the 1890s with Tiele and in the 1980s with Barker, many scholars of 
religion - with personal religious convictions or with none - have held that an 
impartial stance is possible. Indeed, many religious people have sought to research 
and write about their own religion as if they were observers, with objectivity and 
critical distance. It has often been the aim of such participants-as-observers to provide 
an entree into their religion, its beliefs and practices, for outsiders; to make compre- 
hensible, often through the use of 'experience-distant' concepts and commonly 
accepted scientific methods, the esoteric world from which they come. They have 
often shared this aim with observers-as-participants (like Barker), and have sought 
to exercise a bridge-building role with the purpose of communicating what is thought 
or practised within the religion to those outside it. 

Many participants-as-observers have commented sensitively on their own position 
and purpose in writing as believers and practitioners. This has been especially true 
since the 1990s, with the impact of a critical postmodernist and reflexive stance. 
Several examples which exemplify this will be considered later in the section. First, 
we will look at an example from the 1980s in which orthodox religiosity and 
modernist sociology met in an autobiographical account by Samuel Heilman, The 
Gate Behind the Wall (1984, partially reproduced in Comstock 1995). 

I live in two worlds ... In one, I am attached to an eternal yesterday — a time- 
less faith and ritual, an ancient system of behavior. In that world, I am an 
Orthodox Jew. In my other world, there is little if any attachment to the enchant- 
ment of religion or sacred practice, and what is happening today or tomorrow 
matters far more than the verities embedded in the past. In that domain, I am 
a university professor of sociology. 

(Comstock 1995: 214) 

Heilman describes this as 'a double life' in which the two aspects are compartmen- 
talised, and which is generally maintained by forgetting one aspect while living out 
the other. He proceeds, though, to describe the attempt he made 'to collapse the 
boundaries between these two worlds and find a way to make myself whole' (214)- 
Starting out as a modern Orthodox Jewish sociologist, Heilman undertook a 
sociological study of his own synagogue community, 

Insider/outsider perspectives 253 

believing that as an insider I could supply, through both introspection and a 
sense of the relevant questions to ask, information about dimensions of inner 
life not readily available to other researchers ... I would be able to give a fuller 
picture of the synagogue than could any outsider, however well prepared and 
trained he might be. 


Reflecting back on this exercise, he discovered that he had 'found my way back into 
the traditional synagogue from my new home in the University via the tools of my 
social science' (218). However, he harboured a further ambition, to fulfil his sacred 
duty to engage in lernen, the Yiddish term for the Orthodox Jewish practice of 
reviewing the sacred texts with devotion and awe (216). On the advice of his rabbi, 
he further utilised his professional skills as a participant observer in seeking out and 
participating in a traditional study circle or chavruse in Jerusalem. We see in this a 
desire both to fulfil personal religious commitments and to describe and explain the 
world of the chavruse to outsiders. What is of interest in Heilman's powerful account 
is, first, the way in which his position as participant-as-observer is demonstrated 
through the use of spatial imagery and specialist concepts, and, second, the way in 
which he reflects upon that position. 

Heilman's title, The Gate Behind the Wall, in addition to situating us in Jewish 
Jerusalem at or near the Wailing Wall, promises us entry into a traditional and 
esoteric world from which, as outsiders, we are normally excluded, but to which, as 
an insider/outsider Jew, he was powerfully attracted. Further, he uses the imagery of 
walls, gates, rooms and doors to describe his modernist journey: 'Old walls made new 
through a process of uncovering seemed the right metaphor for my own quest' (221). 
In distinguishing between the compartmentalisation from which he was trying to 
escape and the wholeness he sought, he used the metaphor of rooms: in the former, 
'one simply learns to dim the lights in one room while passing into the other'; in 
the chavruse, 'compartments collapse, and rooms open into one another' (229). 
Despite his most fervent efforts, though, as a modernist Jew, he felt unable to tran- 
scend his sense of distance; unable to escape 'the barriers of biography' (230). 

Heilman's two purposes (and two worlds) are mirrored in his use of both 'experi- 
ence-near' and 'experience-distant' concepts. He does not shy away from using Yiddish 
and Hebrew terms, but he also uses the language of religious studies and the social 
sciences in order to move his account beyond the descriptive and ethnographic to 
the analytical and theoretical. Repeatedly, he uses terms such as tradition, culture, 
liturgy and sacred text (rather than equivalent terms from Orthodox Judaism), and 
also introduces social scientific concepts such as liminality (227), authenticity (225) 
and organising principle (228). As autobiographical scholarship, Heilman's account 
is subjective in character. However, it goes beyond description of the participant's 
experience by offering an examination of the limits of Heilman's role as a modernist 
Orthodox Jewish sociologist. He suggests that the process of observation - of others 
and the self - by one who is an insider produces a feeling of separation. His repeated 
references to walls, borders, gates, barriers, doors and limits demonstrate this seem- 
ingly unalterable affliction: 'As if by some sort of biological rejection process, the 
strangeness in me was forcing me out (of the chavruse)' (230). 

254 Key issues in the study of religions 

How have participants-as-observers since Heilman found this role? Have their 
purposes in writing from the inside out been comparable to his? Have their experi- 
ences of observation and the practice of writing about it been similar? Two authors, 
writing in a recent book on the insider/outsider problem, reveal the way in which 
the understanding of this role is changing. Both authors are critical of the juxtapo- 
sition of insiders and outsiders, and see the value of the critical insider stance. 
However, the first asserts the benefits of the both/and principle; the second commends 
the dissolution of the distinction between the two positions. 

Jo Pearson (2002), whose study of British Wicca is entitled 'Going native in 
reverse', notes that there are some religions, requiring initiation, which are largely 
inaccessible to outsiders. For an understanding of these, we are dependent upon 
insiders who act as a bridge between the inside and outside, and facilitate the two 
aspects of involvement and distance. Such an insider-researcher acts as both insider 
and outsider, and the movement back and forth opens him or her up to a range of 
types of information: that which is available to outsiders, that which is only avail- 
able to those within the researched community (insiders), and that which becomes 
available to the researcher through his or her reflexive participation in the research 

At the end of an ethnographic account of his own Quaker meeting, Peter Collins 
(2002) disputes the notions of self and society which underlie the dualism of insider and 
outsider. He uses imagery similar to Heilman's to invoke the modernist perspective 
which sees society 'as a series of buildings each with a single door which serves both as 
entrance and exit: either one is in or one is out, and if one is in one building then one 
cannot at the same time be in another' (93). Collins's view, of a more processual soci- 
ety and a more dynamic self, in which worlds are overlapping and interactive rather 
than isolated and separate, makes the distinction between insider and outsider largely 
redundant. All participants create social meaning through the common practice of story 
telling, and this, in turn, dissolves the boundaries between inside and out. 

Heilman writes of the unresolved tension of being between two worlds as a Jew 
who is also a sociologist. Pearson suggests that, whatever its difficulties, the both/and 
position of the insider-scholar is productive, the reflexive nature of its stance giving 
it the edge over outsider scholarship. Collins concludes that the distinction between 
insider and outsider becomes irrelevant when we recognise that all those who partic- 
ipate, whether of the faith or not, contribute to the co-construction of the story. 
The insider/outsider dichotomy is an unhelpful consequence of a modernist view of 
self and society. 

Where does the problem lie, and what is the way forward? 

This last view is similar to one expressed by Mandair, a recent participant in the 
Sikh studies debate with which I began. In an attempt to understand its ideological 
contours, Mandair (2001) locates the problem in 'the current intellectual and 
methodological crisis or rupture in the human and social sciences' (49) in which 
'secular reason has been placed in a position of supervision in respect of any possible 
inquiry into religion' (50). As he sees it, the Sikh studies debate is not so much a 
function of the insider/outsider problem (as suggested by Darshan Singh) as of the 
modernist turn from religious to secular thinking. In the case of Sikh studies, this 

Insider/outsider perspectives 255 

has had the effect of making insider critiques of Western scholarship look like 
traditionalist, even fundamentalist, attacks. 

Mandair is not merely being defensive here; there is a case to answer. Most 
twentieth-century studies of religions — whether they be historical, in the case of 
Sikh studies, phenomenological or sociological, in the case of our other examples — 
were rooted in the discourse of secular reason and scientific enquiry. Their authors 
spoke the language of neutrality, impartiality, objectivity, observation, reductionism, 
methodological agnosticism and atheism. Both outsiders and scholarly insiders sought 
to articulate their positions in these terms. With the latter, as we saw with Heilman, 
this led to a sense of tension, the result of being an insider subjectively caught up 
in an experience while endeavouring to maintain the appropriate level of critical 
distance required by the scholarly establishment. 

Both Collins and Mandair invite us to step away from the imprisonment of this 
modernist position, but their diagnoses are different. Collins offers a postmodern 
response: the abandonment of dichotomous views of insider/outsider in favour of a 
more dynamic view in which everyone is a co-participant in the formulation of a 
narrative about religion. Mandair favours the move to a study of religion (Sikhism) 
that 'is at once a form of self-discovery, no less spiritual than political, no less ther- 
apeutic than classificatory' (68-9), in short, an antidote to the dominant objectivist, 
secularist approach. 19 

The scholars discussed in this chapter have not only shown us the centrality of 
the insider/outsider problem in the study of religions, they have also highlighted the 
complex issues of subjectivity and objectivity, emic and etic perspectives, the poli- 
tics and ethics of researching and writing about religion (whether as an outsider or 
an insider), the epistemo logical and methodological implications of the problem, and 
its ideological location within Western secular modernism. These are profound 
matters for anyone studying religions. Collins and Mandair invite us in different ways 
to reconceptualise the terms of our discipline in such a way that we are no longer 
compelled to compartmentalise the world of faith and the world of scholarship. For 
some other scholars this is a step too far, one which undermines the distinction 
between those doing religion and those observing it, between theology and the study 
of religions, indeed the very raison d'etre of the latter as a field of study with its own 
terms of reference. 20 In an attempt to rethink the direction and terms of the study 
of religions, Flood offers us an alternative, a strategy for reconfiguring critical distance, 
'outsideness' and situated observation which depends not upon modernist notions of 
objectivity and the phenomenological assertion of non-confessionalism, but rather 
upon a dialogical and reflexive engagement between scholars and the religious people 
they study. 21 

What these new perspectives show is that the problem of the insider and outsider 
is as vital now for understanding the theory and method of religious studies as it was 
when the latter first emerged as a discipline separate from theology more than a 
century ago. 


1 Among other autobiographies and biographies used in connection with this course is the 
collection edited by Gary Comstock entitled Religious Autobiographies (1995) that includes 
accounts by men and women from a wide variety of religious backgrounds. 

256 Key issues in the study of religions 

2 A full account of this debate can be found in Grewal (1998). See also McLeod (2000: 
267-79), and articles by Oberoi and Mandair in Shackle, Singh and Mandaii (2001). 
Insidei/outsidei approaches to Islam have been discussed by Goddard (1995), and by 
Knott in relation to Hindu movements (1998a, 1998b). 

3 Westerners' approaches to non- Western 'others' have been unmasked by anthropologists 
and cultural critics from the late- 1970s, the pre-eminent work being Edward Said's 
Orientalism (1978), see also King (1999). 

4 The study of religions at the end of the nineteenth century and in the early twentieth 
century was referred to variously as 'the scientific study of religion', 'Religionswissenschaft' , 
'comparative religion', 'the history of religions' and, later, 'the phenomenology of reli- 
gions'. These terms had differing meanings though they were all used to signal an area 
of study distinct from theology (see Waardenburg 1973; Sharpe 1975; Whaling 1995). 

5 Muller acknowledged that some people believed religion too sacred to be treated scien- 
tifically while a number of scientists thought it erroneous and beneath their professional 

6 The activities involved in bringing this about were (a) the assigning of names to what 
becomes manifest, (b) the interpolation of the phenomenon into the scholar's own life, 
(c) the observance of bracketing or epoche, (d) the clarification of what has been observed 
and (e) the achievement of understanding (van der Leeuw 1963, pp. 671-9). 

7 This is one of the points made by Darshan Singh in his critique of Western scholars of 

8 See Segal (1983), Wiebe (1985), McCutcheon (1997). This approach takes several disci- 
plinary forms, e.g. social scientific and cognitivist. 

9 See Hufford (1995), Flood (1999) and feminist contributors to King (1995). For a prac- 
tical demonstration of this approach, see Brown (1991). 

10 McCutcheon's reader may be consulted in association with this chapter. Several of the 
articles cited in this chapter may be found in his collection (Geertz, Hufford, Pike, Segal, 
Shaw, Wiebe), and relevant articles by other scholars I have mentioned (Eliade, Smart, 
Brown) are also included. 

11 Gold had a different view of the complete participant to the one I have adopted here. 
To him, all roles were outsider positions, with the complete participant being the soci- 
ologist who pretended for the purposes of the research to be a full and active participant. 
The example I have given on p. 245 of Festinger, Riecken and Schachter might best 
exemplify this position. Unlike Gold, I have used these role conceptions to distinguish 
between the insider and outsider positions of researchers. 

12 The notion of 'experience-near' and 'experience-distant' concepts comes through the 
anthropological work of Clifford Geertz from the psychologist Hans Kohut. 'Experience- 
near concepts' are those which subjects use naturally to describe things with which they 
are familiar, and the latter are those which specialists, such as anthropologists, use for 
scientific and other academic purposes when discussing the practices of the people they 
are studying (Geertz 1974). 

13 Social scientific research methods are commonly divided into quantitative and qualita- 
tive methods, the former being those which use statistical measures for analysing attitudes 
and behaviour (particularly questionnaires), the latter being those which focus on personal 
testimony and behaviour in interviews and other ethnographic practices. 

14 See Beit-Hallahmi and Argyle (1996) for examples. 

15 The 'Guardians' were supernatural beings thought by members to be guiding the movement. 

16 This is not surprising given that the book was written some thirty years before the rise 
in popularity of self-reflexive accounting among social anthropologists and sociologists. 

17 Schooled in social science methodology, Barker also administered questionnaires to mem- 
bers and to those who had expressed an initial interest but had not joined. It is likely that 
Barker's study is the most extensive ever conducted of a new religious movement. 

18 This was the question asked by Darshan Singh ( 1991 ) and other Sikh critics (Grewal 1998). 

19 For an example of such scholarly self-discovery I would suggest the compelling work of 
Karen McCarthy Brown (1991) in which she presents the biography of Mama Lola, a 

Insider/outsider perspectives 257 

Brooklyn Vodou priestess, through a dynamic and increasingly personal engagement 
resulting in an intimate and sometimes self-revelatory account. 

20 See Flood (1999), Fitzgerald (2000) and McCutcheon (2003) for a full discussion of these 

21 Flood's perspective (1999: Chapter 6) is indebted to the ideas of Bakhtin in particular. 


Barker, Eileen, 1984, The Making of a Moonie: Brainwashing or Choice?, Oxford, Blackwell. 
Beit-Hallahmi, B. and Argyle, Michael, 1996, The Social Psychology of Religion, London, 

Brown, Karen McCarthy, 1991, Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn, Berkeley CA, 

University of California Press. 
Collins, Peter ]., 2002, 'Connecting anthropology and Quakerism', in Elisabeth Arweck and 

Martin Stringer, eds, Theorising Faith: The Insider/Outsider Problem in the Study of Ritual, 

Birmingham, Birmingham University Press, pp. 77-95. 
Comstock, Gary L., 1995, Religious Autobiographies, Belmont CA, Wadsworth. 
Davies, Charlotte Aull, 1999, Reflexive Ethnography: A Guide to Researching Selves and Others, 

London, Routledge. 
Donaldson, Laura E. and Pui-lan, Kwok, eds, 2002, Postcolonialism, Feminism, and Religious 

Discourse, New York and London, Routledge. 
Festinger, Leon, Riecken, Henry W. and Schachter, Stanley, 1956, When Prophecy Fails: A 

Social and Psychological Study of a Modem Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World, 

New York, Harper 6k Row (reprinted 1964). 
Fitzgerald, Timothy, 2000, The Ideology of Religious Studies, New York, Oxford University Press. 
Flood, Gavin, 1999, Beyond Phenomenology: Rethinking the Study of Religion, London, Cassell. 
Geertz, Clifford, 1974, '"From the native's point of view": on the nature of anthropological 

understanding', Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 28: 1. 
Goddard, Hugh, 1995, From Double Standards to Mutual Understanding, London, Curzon. 
Gold, Raymond L., 1958, 'Roles in sociological field observations', Social Forces, 36, 217-23. 
Grewal, ]. S., 1998, Contesting Interpretations of the Sikh Tradition, New Delhi, Manohar. 
Heilman, Samuel, 1984, The Gate Behind the Wall, Georges Bourchardt. 
Hufford, David J., 1995, 'The scholarly voice and the personal voice: reflexivity in belief 

studies', Western Folklore, 54, 57-76. 
King, Richard, 1999, Orientalism and Religion: Postcolonial Theory, India and the Mystic East, 

London, Routledge. 
King, Ursula, ed., 1995, Religion and Gender, Oxford, Blackwell. 
Knott, Kim, 1998a, Hinduism: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford, Oxford University Press. 

1998b, 'Insider and outsider perceptions of Prabhupada', Journal of Vaisnava Studies, 6: 

2, 73-91. 

Kristensen, William Brede, 1960, The Meaning of Religion, The Hague, Martinus Nijhoff. 
McCutcheon, Russell T., 1997, Manufacturing Religion: The Discourse of Sui Generis Religion 
and the Politics of Nostalgia, New York and Oxford, Oxford University Press. 

ed., 1999, The Insider/Outsider Problem in the Study of Religion: A Reader, London and 

New York, Cassell. 

2003, The Discipline of Religion, London and New York, Routledge. 

McLeod, W. H., 2000, Exploring Sikhism: Aspects of Sikh Identity, Culture and Thought, Oxford, 

Oxford University Press. 
Mandair, Arvind-Pal Singh, 2001, 'Thinking differently about religion and history: issues for 

Sikh Studies', in Christopher Shackle, Gurharpal Singh and Arvind-Pal Mandair, eds, Sikh 

Religion, Culture and Ethnicity, Richmond, Curzon, pp. 47-71. 

258 Key issues in the study of religions 

Mernissi, Fatima, 1991, Women and Islam: An Historical and Theological Enquiry, Oxford, 

Blackwell [1987]. 
Miiller, Max F., 1873, Introduction to the Science of Religion, London, Longmans, Green & Co. 
O'Connor, June, 1995, 'The epistemological significance of feminist research in religion' in 

Ursula King, ed., Religion and Gender, Oxford, Blackwell, pp. 45-64- 
Pearson, Jo, 2002, '"Going native in reverse": the insider as researcher in British Wicca', in 

Elisabeth Arweck and Martin Stringer, eds, Theorising Faith: The Insider/Outsider Problem in 

the Study of Ritual, Birmingham, Birmingham University Press, pp. 97-113. 
Pike, Kenneth, 1967, Language in Relation to a Unified Theory of the Structure of Human 

Behaviour, 2nd edn, The Hague, Mouton. 
Said, Edward, 1978, Orientalism, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul. 
Segal, Robert A., 1983, 'In defense of reductionism', Journal of the American Academy of 

Religion, 51, 97-124. 
Shackle, Christopher, Singh, Gurharpal and Mandair, Arvind-Pal, eds, 2001, Sikh Religion, 

Culture and Ethnicity, Richmond, Curzon. 
Sharpe, Eric, 1975, Comparative Religion: A History, London, Duckworth. 
Shaw, Rosalind, 1995, 'Feminist anthropology and the gendering of religious studies', in Ursula 

King, ed., Religion and Gender, Oxford, Blackwell, pp. 65-76. 
Singh, Darshan, 1991, Western Perspective on the Sikh Religion, New Delhi, Sehgal Publishers 

Singh, Gurdev, ed., 1986, Perspectives on the Sikh Tradition, Patiala, Siddharth Publications. 
Smart, Ninian, 1973, The Science of Religion and the Sociology of Knowledge: Some Methodological 

Questions, Princeton, Princeton University Press. 
Tiele, Cornelius P., 1897-9, Elements of the Science of Religion, 2 vols, Edinburgh/London, 

Blackwood and Sons, 
van der Leeuw, Gerardus, 1963, Religion in Essence and Manifestation, 2 vols, New York, Harper 

Torchbooks [1938]. 
Waardenburg, Jacques, 1973, Classical Approaches to the Study of Religion, The Hague, Mouton. 
Whaling, Frank, ed., 1995, Theory and Methods in Religious Studies: Contemporary Approaches 

to the Study of Religions, Berlin, Mouton de Gruyter. 
Wiebe, Donald, 1985, 'Does understanding religion require religious understanding?', in Witold 

Tyloch, ed., Current Progress in the Methodology of the Science of Religions, Warsaw, Polish 

Scientific Publishers. 

Chapter 14 


Paul Heelas 


The term 'postmodernism' can mean many things. Here, with the term being deployed 
in connection with the study of religion, it is primarily taken to refer to a mode/s 
of inquiry whereby religion (or, for that matter, anything else) is investigated. The 
key theme in what follows is that postmodernism, reacting to Enlightenment thought, 
questions — even disgards — the possibility of arriving at the truth, the essential, the 
clear-cut definition or interpretation, the explanation. Regarding the most extreme 
forms of postmodernism, this means that the study of religion comes to a close. 
However, it will be seen that in less radical forms postmodern thought can enrich 
debates about what is involved in studying religion. 

To place this essay in context, by and large the application of postmodern thinking 
to the study of religion has lagged behind this kind of application in fields like 
cultural studies, women's studies, cultural anthropology and media studies. Most 
investigations of religion still take place in terms of those canons of inquiry devel- 
oped by the modernist Enlightenment 'project': the quest for clear definitions, rigorous 
analysis, convincing interpretation, recurrent correlations or patterns as revealed by 
comparison, logically coherent propositions and explanations based on the best avail- 
able evidence, in sum something at least approaching the goal of the definitive 
account. However, there has been a shift away from some of the canons of inquiry 
of the Enlightenment. Most obviously, this is seen in the reluctance of the great 
majority of modernist scholars today to explain religion away by reducing it to socio- 
cultural or psychological states of affairs, to establish the origins and evolution of 
religion and thereby predict the future, or to find universal laws of a causal/func- 
tional nature. And it can be argued that this modification of Enlightenment 
aspirations owes a considerable amount to that 'climate' of postmodern thought which 
has become widely in evidence within the academy. Furthermore, as we shall see, 
postmodern thought is beginning to be directly applied to the study of religion. 

This essay is organized in terms of six main sections. The first — 'The Enlightenment 
project' — provides a summary of this pivotal feature of modernity. It might seem 
strange to begin in such a fashion, given that so much postmodern thought is so 
opposed to the project. However, given that much postmodernism has been fuelled 
by rebellion against the Enlightenment, it has to be understood by reference to what 
is being rejected. The second section — 'Radical postmodernism and the assault on 
the Enlightenment project' - summarizes some of the more philosophically informed 
ways in which postmodern thought has generated a clear break with what has 

260 Key issues in the study of religions 

proceeded it. The emphasis here is very much on loss of faith in the Enlightenment 
project. The third section — 'Postmodernism as the radicalization of difference' — 
draws attention to a rather different (although in some ways interlinked) dynamic, 
where values and politics would appear to be as important as philosophy (if not more 
so) in fuelling postmodern thought. Paradoxically, it will be seen, as well as opposing 
a very great deal indeed of Enlightened modernity, perhaps the key feature of much 
postmodern thought — the radicalization of 'difference' — also owes a very great deal 
to such key values of Enlightened modernity as equality, 'respecting the other' and 
'the freedom of the other'. 

As well as serving to 'ground' postmodern thought by showing how it relates to 
Enlightened modernity, implications for the study of religion are also discussed in 
the second and third sections. The theme of what kinds of study (if study is possible 
at all) are associated with varieties of postmodern thought is taken further in the 
next two sections. These are entitled 'Critical reflections: on the wild side and the 
death of the study of religion' and 'Critical reflections: the "middle way'". The former 
summarizes the negative consequences of radical postmodernism (of whatever variety: 
philosophical, value-driven or both) for the study of religion. The latter explores 
what postmodernism, especially in its more value- and politically-driven dynamic, 
might have to offer to religious studies. As for the last main section of this essay — 
A note on postmodern religion' — attention is paid to whether the postmodern (and 
modern) study of religion serves to reveal the existence of postmodern religion. 

Finally, by way of introduction, a note on how this chapter has been written. 
Postmodernism is not so easy to characterize. A major theme running through this 
way of thinking is opposition to 'metanarratives' (that is, systematized, universalized 
and forceful modes of knowledge). As a modernist, however, I have to accept that 
I have quite naturally written this essay on postmodernism and the study of religion 
in terms of a particular metanarrative — that of intellectual inquiry as spelt out 
by ways of thinking articulated by the Enlightenment. No doubt this means that I 
do violence to postmodern thought, most obviously over-systematizing or 'over- 
metanarrativizing' it. My justification for writing as a modernist, though, is that an 
entry written (seriously) in the spirit of postmodernist suspicion or rejection of meta- 
narratives would not be able to lay out, analyse, compare and critically discuss 
postmodern (and other) ways of studying religion. Furthermore, it could well be the 
case that my approach is justified by the fact that postmodernism, itself, is in fact a 

The Enlightenment project 

As has already been indicated, postmodern thought has largely — although by no 
means entirely — grown up in opposition to that of the Enlightenment project. 
Accordingly, it is helpful to begin with a summary of this project: a summary which 
will be drawn upon later when we explore the ways and extent to which postmodern 
thought has broken with the canons of the Enlightenment. 

The Enlightenment project has provided a, if not the, central dynamic with regard 
to the construction of modernity. Enlightenment thought has by no means been 
limited to the realm of philosophy (where Kant has been the most influential figure). 
For it has also had a crucial role to play in the development of the other academic 

Postmodernism 261 

disciplines of modernity (including various ways of studying religion). Furthermore, 
by way of science, Enlightenment thought has been highly influential in the devel- 
opment of the great institutional developments of modernity, including the industrial 
'revolution', the capitalist 'revolution', and political change (the democratic 'revo- 
lution', the development of the nation state and the development of the ethic of 

Four key value-laden assumptions lie at the heart of the Enlightenment project. 
The first concerns faith in the exercise of reason. In the words of Thomas Paine 
(1998, orig. 1792), 'Reason obeys itself; and Ignorance submits to whatever is dictated 
to it' (p. 190). Rationality, it has been widely assumed, operates according to its 
own, sui generis, objective if not infallible laws. And applied to empirical evidence, 
the exercise of reason enables claims to be tested; claims which, if verified, can be 
counted upon as being firmly grounded. 

This leads on to the second (and intimately related) great assumption of the project, 
namely that it is possible to arrive at 'the truth'. Whether it be the fields of science, 
technology, politics or ethics, it has been widely maintained that it is possible to 
arrive at the correct answer or solution; the accurate definition or classification; the 
correct explanation; the true ethicality. 

Furthermore, and turning to the third great assumption, Enlightened thinkers have 
great faith in 'the same'. The quest has been to determine the unitary, the universal, 
that essence which lies behind superficial differences. Thus the quest has been to 
demonstrate that there is such a thing as 'humanity', lying behind or within the 
difference made by tradition, ethnicity or race. Again, the quest has been to determine 
universally applicable laws to explain, for example, human progress. 

Mention of progress leads on to the fourth cardinal assumption: that the successful 
application of reason ensures that humankind moves into an ever better-perfected 
future. As the matter is put by Kant, in what is perhaps the most famous of all the 
rallying cries of the Enlightenment, 

Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. 
Immaturity is the inability to use one's own understanding without the guidance 
of another. This immaturity is self-incurred if its cause is not lack of understanding, 
but lack of resolution and courage to use it without the guidance of another. 
The motto of enlightenment is therefore: Sapere audel Have courage to use your 
own understanding! 

(1970: 54; original emphasis) 

Having introduced the Enlightenment project, we can now briefly turn to some of 
the (exemplificatory) ways in which it has born fruit with regard to the study of 
religion. Going back to the nineteenth century, 'progress' translated into widespread 
evolutionary theorizing of religion, essentialized notions of 'magic', 'religion' and 
'science' (or cognates) serving to chart development. Moving into the twentieth cen- 
tury, attention turned to correlatory studies. Deploying (supposedly) precise definitions 
(of, say, ancestor worship), the aim was to seek out causally significant (as recurrent 
if not universal) connections (between, say, ancestor worship and a particular socio- 
cultural formation). Or again, and now thinking of the structuralist approach of the 
1960s and 1970s, Levi-Strauss (1966, orig. 1962) sought 'the same' - particularly with 

262 Key issues in the study of religions 

reference to apparently disparate mythologies — at the level of fundamental structures 
of the human mind. 

To conclude this introduction to the Enlightenment project and its application to 
the study of religion, it remains to draw attention to two more (interrelated) points. 
First, although in recent decades many scholars have lost faith in the 'grander' ambi- 
tions of Enlightened study (such as establishing the origins of religion), there certainly 
has for long been a strongly reductionistic thrust to much social scientific investi- 
gation. To put it simply, Enlightenment thought has supposed that reason can only 
be applied to arrive at verifiable, determinate truths when it can work with publicly 
available — or empirically sustainable — evidence. Since the putatively sui generis reli- 
gious realm is not empirically accessible, religion must be reduced to that which 
belongs to the public domain (psychological or sociological states of affairs, for 
example) in order to be explained. And second, this means that Enlightenment 
(social scientific, etc.) theorizing has typically involved moving beyond the partici- 
pant's frame of reference. Participants might believe in their religions, but since such 
beliefs — for the reason just given — are not of explanatory value, the investigator 
has to go 'deeper' to find empirical referents. Explanations are 'extra- religious'. Thus 
for Durkheim religion is 'really' about society; and for Levi-Strauss myths are 'really' 
about meanings operating more or less entirely beyond the ken of participants. In 
short, much Enlightenment theorizing about religion has traditionally involved the 
assumption that the 'enlightened' investigator can arrive at knowledge which is 
superior to — as truer than — the knowledge of those being studied. 

Radical postmodernism and the assault on the 
Enlightenment project 

The extent to which postmodern thought can on occasion - although by no means 
always — run counter to the Enlightenment project can be gleaned from this excel- 
lent characterization provided by Judith Squires: 

The postmodern condition may be characterised ... as involving three key 
features: the death of Man, History and Metaphysics. This involves the rejec- 
tion of all essentialist and transcendental conceptions of human nature; the 
rejection of unity, homogeneity, totality, closure and identity; the rejection of 
the pursuit of the real and the true. In the place of these illusory ideals we find 
the assertion that man is a social, historical or linguistic artefact; the celebra- 
tion of fragmentation, particularity and difference; the acceptance of the 
contingent and apparent. Such a postmodern celebration of relativism and rejec- 
tion of absolutism (or particularism over universalism) has led ... to a relativism 
of the vocabulary of 'judgement', 'worth', and merit in aesthetics; 'rights', 
'freedom' and 'duty' in ethics; and 'truth', verification' and 'objectivity' in epis- 
temology; all are seen as discourse dependent. There is, we are often told, nothing 
outside the text. 

(1993: 2) 

The sacred projects of 'Enlightened' modernity — not least the pursuit of truth — are 
put to waste. 

Postmodernism 263 

The kind of radical postmodernism portrayed by Squires (radical because, as we 
shall see later, there are more qualified renderings) is very much informed by the 
idea that it is not possible to acquire knowledge of what might exist beyond the 
text. Indeed, in the classic statement of Jacques Derrida's Of Grammatology , it is 
maintained that '11 n'y a pas d'hors texts' ('There is nothing outside of the text') 
(1976, orig. 1967; my emphasis). With nothing lying beyond the text (or, for some 
postmodernists, the idea that it is not possible to acquire knowledge of what lies 
beyond the text), the objective and essentialized states of affairs discerned by the 
Enlightenment project are no longer in evidence. Hence, as in Squires' summary, 
the talk of 'death'. 

What are the implications for the study of religion? Religion can be added to Squires' 
list of 'Man, History and Metaphysics'. As envisaged in terms of Enlightenment 
thought, that is to say, 'Religion' too has died. It does not exist — or it cannot be 
studied as existing — as something 'out there' with its 'own', definable reality, whether 
to do with naturalistic or sacred realms of existence. It only exists as text. And it 
follows from all these 'deaths' that many of the ways of studying religion informed by 
the Enlightenment project have to be disbanded. It is no longer possible, for example, 
to explain the generation of religious beliefs — in the fashion of Freud — by reference 
to independently existing emotional processes; it is no longer possible to decode 
mythological symbols — in the fashion of Levi-Strauss — by reference to fundamental 
structures of the human mind; and neither is it possible to explain religion by refer- 
ence to the social, in the fashion of Durkheim. 

But what of religion as 'text'? What are the implications of this claim for the study 
of religion? In order to pursue this question, it is first necessary to say a few words 
about how (many) postmodernists approach text, that is, by way of 'deconstruction'. 
In contrast to what can be thought of as the classic theory of meaning associated 
with the Enlightenment project, namely the (semiological) idea that the meaning 
of a sign is to be sought by way of what it refers to (its referent), deconstruction 
only involves the text. For as we have seen, the assumption is that there are no 
independently existing referents (indeed signifieds) to appeal to. So what happens 
when meanings are sought within the text? To put the matter graphically, you look 
up the meaning of a word in the dictionary; you find more words; you look them 
up; and you find yet more; ad infinitum. Meanings are interconnected; meanings 
interplay; words have different meanings depending on how they are used; that is, 
in connection with what other words they are used with. Of particular note, as Kate 
Currie (1996) makes the point, 'Within Derrida's conceptual apparatus there are no 
instances of absolute truth [or meaning] only "difference" in which everything is only 
as it differs from something else' (p. 114). The meaning of a word is what the word 
is not, for the meaning only operates by virtue of how the word links up with other 
words — and since this can take place in countless ways, there is no one determinate 

Overall, the shift to deconstruction means that connotation, not denotation, is what 
matters. Implications, mutual entailments, hybridizations, prevail over/resist/abolish 
those determinate meanings (supposedly) established by way of concrete referents or 
the exercise of analysis. As for the implications of this for the study of religion, the 
indeterminacy of meaning thesis obviously means (!) that it is no longer possible to 
arrive at those clear-cut definitions which are required for much — if not all — social 

264 Key issues in the study of religions 

scientific study of religion. One cannot make correlations, for example, in order to 
discern causes, unless one can clearly define what one is correlating; one cannot say 
that a particular kind of religion functions in a particular kind of way unless one 
clearly defines the kind of religion (and the function, for that matter). But the impli- 
cations of Derridian deconstructuralism are worse than this for the study of religion. 
For it is not only 'harder' social science which comes out badly; it is also 'softer' 
interpretative studies. Those (many) such studies relying on binary oppositions (sacred 
vs profane, for example) do not fare well, deconstructors arguing that supposedly 
opposing binaries actually inhere in one another. And more generally, any interpre- 
tation so to speak becomes 'infected' by the indeterminancies of whatever texts are 
being interpreted. Indeterminancies of meaning with regard to the text, that is to 
say, ensure that any interpretation is equally indeterminate (and all the more so 
because interpretations are themselves texts). 

Religion as text is 'out of control'. Indeed, with the death of 'the author' - or the 
individual human subject — those 'scholars' carrying out the interpretations are only 
texts, and are themselves unable to control where the meanings which they write 
might lead. In short, the radical endpoint of deconstruction is a world in which any 
one interpretation (or scholarly monograph), of any particular religious text, would 
appear to be as 'good' — or as 'bad' — as any other. The future for the study of religion 
would not appear to be promising. 

Postmodernism as the radicalization of difference 

The argument thus far has concentrated on postmodern thought as a powerful counter- 
current to the Enlightenment project. But this is by no means the whole of the story. 
For it can also be argued that a key dynamic running through much of postmodern 
thought concerns the extension or radicalization of central values of enlightened 

Seyla Benhabib alerts us to this possibility: 

Postmodernism presupposes a super-liberalism, more pluralistic, more tolerant, 
more open to the right of difference and otherness than the rather staid and 
sober versions presented by John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin and Thomas Nagel. 
As far as I am concerned this is not troublesome. What is baffling though is the 
lightheartedness with which postmodernists simply assume or even posit those 
hyper-universalist and superliberal values of diversity, heterogeneity, eccentricity 
and otherness. 

(1992: 16; my emphases) 

Leaving to one side her observation concerning 'lightheartedness', the important 
thing for present purposes concerns her references to 'super-liberalism' and the 'hyper- 
universalist'. As we will see shortly, Benhabib would appear to be absolutely correct 
to point to these features within postmodern thought. And if indeed this is the case, 
then this aspect of postmodern thought can be treated as being a radicalization of 
the 'ethic of humanity' (as it can be called) of the Enlightenment project. 

To develop this argument, we have to begin with the ethic of humanity. Drawing 
on Durkheim's analysis, the logic of this ethic runs as follows. Since we are all 

Postmodernism 265 

humans, and since the 'human personality' is of 'incomparable value', we are called 
upon to: 'respect' all those who share humanity as much as we respect ourselves; 
treat everyone with 'dignity'; treat all humans 'as though we were equal'; exercise 
'sympathy', 'pity', our 'thirst for justice', our responsibilities; avoid killing ('except in 
cases allowed by law'); and avoid 'unlawful attack' 'on the property of the human 
person'. In addition, the ethic valorizes 'freedom'. By virtue of being human we are 
entitled to rights, most generally the right (or freedom) to live 'out' what it is to be 
human. We have the right to live; the right to be treated with dignity; the right to 
be treated as equal; indeed, all those rights which (supposedly) serve to protect 
us from those outside forces which threaten our freedom to live as human beings. 
Furthermore, people also have the right (or freedom) to be different: the importance 
attached to 'respect' is bound up with the importance attached to people having the 
freedom to live — at least within limits — different forms of life. 

Despite the role played by freedom, however, this is a 'strong' form of liberalism. 
The contrast is with 'weak' (relativistic, laissez-faire) liberalism: emphasizing freedom 
(people being free to hold different values), weak liberalism attaches equal import- 
ance to equality, respect and toleration, and this means that one cannot judge the 
freedom of others as wrong (for to do so would mean that they were no longer being 
treated as equals). The ethic of humanity, on the other hand, places 'freedom' under 
scrutiny. Some forms of life (and their associated exercise of freedom) are wrong, 
namely those forms of life which attack other of the values bound up with the 
universal ethic of 'being human'. Thus one cannot respect those who exercise their 
freedom to take away human dignity; who destroy human life in an unlawful fashion; 
and so on. In short, far from uncritically propounding that all forms of life, all free- 
doms, are equal, the ethic has a powerful cutting edge. 

What, then, has this ethicality to do with postmodern thought and the study of 
religion? Postmodern radicalization, we can now see, allows 'freedom', the right 
(freedom) to be different, (together with associated values of the ethic), to run riot. 

Recalling Benhabib's observation that 'postmodernists simply assume or even posit 
those hyper-universalist and superliberal values of diversity, heterogeneity, eccentricity 
and otherness', to value difference in this kind of way — one can then go on to argue 
- is ipso facto to value 'respect' (for otherwise differences could not be positively eval- 
uated), 'equality' (in that positive evaluations of differences mean that they must at 
least approximate to being equal) and 'freedom'. And the last — I think — is the key 
to the matter. From (at least) Nietzsche, the reason why difference matters, is eval- 
uated as it is, is that it is bound up with that great priority — the freedom to live as 
one wills. 

Postmodern ethicality here involves the radicalization — or valorization — of the 
key 'freedom/difference' component of the ethic of humanity. However, whereas the 
traditional ethic of humanity of modernity serves to restrain the operation of 'freedom' 
(as we have seen, one should not exercise one's freedom to engage in acts which 
run counter to what it is to be human by failing to treat people with dignity, for 
example), postmodern freedom tends to run riot. The reason is simple: recalling 
Judith Squires earlier in this essay, postmodernity 'involves the rejection of all essen- 
tialist and transcendental conceptions of human nature'. The exercise of postmodern 
freedom or difference, in other words, can no longer be tested — that is evaluated — 
by reference to the (essentialized) virtues taken to be bound up with what it is to 

266 Key issues in the study of religions 

be human: equality, dignity, responsibility for the welfare of others, and so on. 
Difference is simply 'difference'. And hence - of course — the criticism so often 
levelled against (much) postmodern ethicality, namely its political and moral inability 
to identify and deal with 'real' or 'really significant' differences — like the exercise of 
racism — by judging them to involve the wrong exercise of freedom. Respect for the 
freedoms of others results in political paralysis. 

This said, however, the fact remains that many (somewhat modified) postmod- 
ernists have developed a politics of freedom and liberation, and one which — we will 
shortly see — has very considerable significance for the study of religion. Although 
this politics is grounded in Enlightenment values (freedom, equality, liberation), 
precisely because of this it involves expunging those domineering metanarratives so 
characteristic of Enlightenment or modernist thought. The idea 'of respecting the 
other', that is to say, by no means extends to respecting all 'the others' of 
Enlightenment/modernist metanarratives. And the reason is simple. Systematized, 
universalized forms of knowledge are held to disavow, misrepresent, control or repress 
those who do not belong to the applications of any particular metanarrative. The 
cry, instead, is for freedom, expression, articulation, voice, for all. And hence the 
value-driven attack on the totalizing 'Big Other/s'. 

Thinking of the highly influential work of Jean-Francois Lyotard, in key passages 
of The Postmodern Condition. A Report on Knowledge (1984) he writes that 'consensus 
does violence to the heterogeneity of language games'; that we need to 'tolerate the 
incommensurable'; that we should 'wage a war on totality' and 'activate the differ- 
ences' (pp. xxv, 82). 'Metanarratives', namely those discourses which use the language 
of sameness, identity, totality, unity and consensus, must be deconstructed - that is 
dismantled — to reveal the discourses of 'micronarratives', namely those discourses 
which emphasize heterogeneity, multiplicity, diversity, difference, incommensurability 
and dissensus. Totalization must give way to particularization. 

Metanarratives, according to this account, dominate and repress; impose the ethno- 
centric same on the different. Consider, for example, the ethic of humanity, and the 
Gianni Vattimo (1992) critique: 'ethnic, sexual, religious, cultural, or aesthetic 
minorities' have been 'repressed and cowed into silence by the idea of a single true 
form of humanity that must be realized irrespective of particularity and individual 
finitude, transience, and contingency' (p. 9). Or consider postmodern feminists, who 
have severely criticized the ethic for taking away the freedom of women to be women. 
The ethic is seen as a Western, white, male construction, serving (in the fashion of 
Foucauldian analysis) to articulate male concerns and values at the expense — for 
example — of genuine women's rights. Furthermore, the ethic is seen as serving to 
define women as human, when what really matters is their womanness. And this is 
where deconstruction comes back into the picture. To put it graphically, decon- 
struction here serves as another word for liberation. Demolition of the metanarrative, 
that essential truth which - by virtue of presenting one truth/set of truths — neces- 
sarily excludes other truth claims, is taken to be a vital ingredient in the quest for 

We are now in the position to turn to what the valorization of 'freedom', and 
therefore of 'difference', together with the critique of 'Enlightened' metanarration 
has to do with the study of religion. Writing on postmodernism and the study 
of Zorostrianism (2000), John Hinnells notes that 'The Modernist conviction that 

Postmodernism 267 

western (all male), unbiased scholars could write "scientific", objective accounts 
of a clearly definable, homogeneous, unitary phenomenon, Zorastrianism, whose 
essence is characterized by formal theological doctrines in "classical" texts, has under- 
pinned Zorastrian studies until the 1980s' (p. 2). (And much the same can surely 
be said for scholarship on other (all?) 'major' (and not-so-'major'?) religious tradi- 
tions.) In the same article, Hinnells also provides an excellent summary of that 
approach to the study of religious tradition which attends to the micronarrative, the 
liberating, the importance of letting the repressed tell their stories: 

at the risk of appearing simplistic and of reducing postmodernism to a list of 
defined rules, which it is not, some of the characteristic features of many post- 
modern studies of religion may be listed as: (i) the rejection of grand 
meta-narratives; (ii) each scholar's awareness of their own 'situated' position; (iii) 
the move away from the exclusive dependence on the official textual traditions 
[macronarration] to the practices associated with the home and daily life 
[micronarration]; (iv) the conviction that there is no such thing as 'true', 
objective, scientific History, there are only discourses about history . . . 

(p. 1) 

And as he continues, A different, but not unrelated branch of postmodernism has 
been a concern to deconstruct many received notions, or reifications, such as the 
notion of Buddhism, Hinduism, etc' (pp. 1-2). 

By no means all of the literature that Hinnells has in mind is of a radically decon- 
structive nature, let alone with many scholars committing themselves to the view 
that 'There is nothing outside of the text'. This said, however, there are distinct 
signs of the study of religion entering those 'wilder' domains of postmodern thought 
entailed by some of the points made in Hinnells' summary. For instance, one can 
think of Mark C. Taylor's recent edited volume, Critical Terms for Religious Studies 
(1998). In his Introduction, Taylor cites Wendy Doniger: 

[T]he academic world . . . now suffers from a post-colonial backlash: in this age 
of multiculturalism, to assume that two texts from different cultures are 'the same' 
in any significant way is regarded as demeaning to the individualism of each, a 
reflection of the old racist attitude that 'all wogs look alike' — in the dark, all 
cats are gray. And in the climate of anti-Orientalism, it is regarded as imperialist 
of a scholar to stand outside (presumably above) two different cultures. 

(p. H) 

Taylor himself then continues to write: 

it is necessary to develop comparative analyses that do not presuppose universal 
principles or reinscribe ahistorical essences. Whether or not it is possible to 
realize such a comparativist program, many critics schooled in poststructuralism 
insist that the very effort to establish similarities where there appear to be differ- 
ences is, in the final analysis, intellectually misleading and politically misguided. 
When reason is obsessed with unity, they argue, it tends to become as hege- 
monic as political and economic orders constructed to regulate whatever does 

268 Key issues in the study of religions 

not fit into or agree with governing structures. In this situation, critical theory 
becomes a strategy for resisting dominant power by soliciting the return of the 

(p. 15) 

In the volume as a whole, 'critical theory' is applied by a number of scholars to 
a whole range of (largely) 'standard' terms deployed by Enlightenment religious 
studies. Such critical theory involves varying degrees of deconstruction, this being 
bound up with arguments purporting to show that terms such as 'belief, 'experience' 
and 'sacrifice' are the 'invention' of particular sociocultural circumstances (specifi- 
cally Christianity and Western modernity): thereby serving in intellectually mis- 
leading and politically misguided ways when applied cross-culturally. Although there 
is surely much to be said for standing for freedom by deconstructing terms which 
have served repressive ends, which have eroded significant differences by imposing 
'the same' (that is Enlightenment/modernist defined terms), and which have thereby 
silenced/muted the voices and power of other 'religions', there is cause for concern. 
Namely that with this quite radical postmodern approach to 'religion', comparative, 
globalized language gets lost. Deconstruction, together with strong hints — if not more 
— that authors of the articles in the volume would agree, if pressed, with Derrida's 
'There is nothing outside of the text', means that the language of religious studies 
itself is under some considerable threat. 

Most fundamentally on this front, and citing Taylor's summary of recent argumen- 
tation, if indeed 'Far from existing prior to and independent of any inquiry, the very 
phenomenon of religion is constituted by local discursive practices', if indeed 
'Investigators create — sometimes unknowingly — the objects they profess to discover', 
and if indeed 'that appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, religion is a modern 
Western invention' (pp. 6-7), religious studies loses its global 'hold'; that comparative, 
analytical, explanatory purchase via the term and substance 'religion'. 'It' ['religion'] 
does not 'exist' elsewhere, that is beyond where it was 'invented'. Other 
Enlightenment-designated 'religions' might become liberated from an inaccurate — and 
therefore supposedly repressive — label, but — we might add — how are these erstwhile 
'religions' to be characterized in ways that make sense across cultures without lapsing 
into the kinds of pitfalls which, it has been argued, befall the category 'religion' ? In 
short, what language are we left with to discuss and explore religions across cultures? 

At the end of the day, the valorization of 'freedom' or 'the right to be different', 
clearly operative in Taylor's edited volume, means that the right, the freedom, of 
'religions' to 'be' whatever they 'are' would appear to place severe restraints on the 
study of religion per se. There might be good political and academic reasons for 
allowing 'religions' the right to 'speak' for, or 'represent' themselves, but taken too 
far such courses of action undermine cross-cultural investigation, leaving the Other 
simply as the Other. 

Critical reflections: on the wild side and the death of the 
study of religion 

It would be absurd, in the present context, to engage in systematic critical assess- 
ment of what 'wilder' postmodernism has to offer to the study of religion. So what 

Postmodernism 269 

now follows is modest reflection, expanding upon — as well as drawing on — a number 
of points raised earlier. 

The reader might have thought that he or she had reached the wildest reaches of 
postmodern thought — to recall Squires, 'the death of Man, History and Metaphysics'. 
Or recall what has been said about the death of 'Religion' as a reality which can be 
explored/explained by reference to other psychological or sociocultural realities. But 
far from it. Reason itself, that critical tool for any (conventionally defined) academic 
study of religion (or anything else) is undermined. Reason — other, perhaps, than 
when mathematical and other technical tools are deployed — utilizes words. And 
more radical — Derridian — postmodernists claim that words by no means have 
determinate, and therefore logically deployable, meanings. 

To the extent that the exercise of reason is undermined (or deconstructed), so too 
is research as that activity has traditionally been understood. Combine this with the 
idea that with the radical deconstructionist perspective any interpretation is as good 
as any other, and traditionally envisaged research takes another blow. Then there is 
the consideration that (some) radical postmodernists take the value of respecting the 
Other to mean (!) that the Other should not be explained, decoded, classified, 
defined, compared, translated — by way of supposedly superior transcultural termi- 
nology, knowledge or theory — or even studied at all. (It is impossible, for an obvious 
reason, to provide an illustration of the last.) The logical end result of 'freedom to 
be different', that is to say, is to leave the 'Other' entirely alone; entirely liberated 
from external adjudication or interference. (For additional and specific points whereby 
postmodern thought has impacted upon, and curtailed, social scientific theorizing of 
religion see Rosenau (1992) and Masuzawa (1993).) 

All this rules out too much: arguably on the grounds of academic research per se, 
but perhaps even more significantly on the grounds of politics. It is surely the case 
that we need to arrive at the best possible understanding of the 'religions' of 'Others' 
in order not to misrepresent them; to know how to live with them; to learn how to 
respond to them in an increasingly interfused world (albeit an increasingly divisive 
one in many regards). Whatever the case on this front (and the matter is returned 
to shortly), there remains the consideration that radical postmodern thought has to 
be questioned by virtue of the (apparent) fact that it undermines itself. Considering 
this by reference to the notion of 'religion', to follow those who deny that religion 
has some supra-historical/textual essence or substance is in fact to make an ontological 
claim. Furthermore, this is a claim informed by another claim of equally ontological 
stature: that (to recall Derrida) 'There is nothing outside of the text'. And, it should 
go without saying, it is difficult if not impossible to see how ontological judge- 
ments of this kind can be made within the deconstructed realms of the Derridian 

One suspects that the 'ontologizing' of many of the more radical postmodernists 
has a great deal to do with the 1960s. What fuels deconstruction and the denial of 
anything beyond the text is not so much the exercise of reason (for that itself is 
deconstructed) and appeal to evidence (for that is not in evidence) but the faith 
in freedom, liberation, respecting the other, the right to be different: all key 
1960s values. Derrida's Of Grammatology is perhaps better called Politics Through 
Grammar: deconstruction meaning liberation from metanarratives and the tyranny 
of reason; deconstruction aimed at providing a powerful politics of freedom, liberation, 

270 Key issues in the study of religions 

emancipation. The 'logical' end result of the value attached to the freedom to be 
different has thus been driven by the revolutionary changes - in certain circles — of 
the 1960s. It is this which explains that radical shift, which took place during the 
1960s and earlier 1970s, from the structuralism of Levi-Strauss - epitomizing high 
Enlightenment thought in critical regards - to the wilder side. 

Critical reflections: the 'middle way' 

An increasing number of scholars (including Benhabib and Squires), in a range of 
disciplines including religious studies, are attempting to extract what they take to 
be the lessons of postmodern thought while avoiding what they consider to be 
counter-productive excesses. These scholars also attempt to marry what is taken to 
be of value in the realm of the postmodern with what they take to be of value from 
Enlightenment thought. Regarding the latter, the aim is to avoid what is considered 
to be the limitations of (in particular) 'hard' social science. 

Looking at the development of the 'middle way', we can begin with the fact that 
much of the study of religion has now moved a long way from the blunt instruments 
and grand — if not imperialistic, totalizing — theories of the earlier days of the appli- 
cation of Enlightenment thought and knowledge to religion. Few today have much 
faith in the quest for origins; in predictable evolutionary sequences; in universal laws; 
in universally applicable essentialized definitions. What has happened, in fact, is that 
research - broadly within the modernist or Enlightenment frame of reference — has 
increasingly moved in the direction of what is now spelt out - in more radical fashion 
- by those within the postmodernist camp. One might consider, for example, Peter 
Winch's highly influential The Idea of a Social Science (1994, orig. 1958). Arguing 
that meanings are constitutive of the sociocultural — that is that forms of life such 
as marriage or religion only exist by virtue of their being meaningful — Winch claims 
that supposedly causal explanations are in fact tautological (for meanings are inter- 
connected). Furthermore, since meanings are 'vague' ('How many grains of wheat 
does one have to add together before one has a heap?' (p. 73)), strict definitions of 
the kind required by 'hard' social science are not on the cards. Or one might consider 
Rodney Needham's Belief, Language, and Experience (1972). The argument, in this 
regard, is that it is mistaken to suppose that 'belief is a universally applicable category 
with universally applicable descriptive, let alone explanatory, value. 

Attending to the 'middle way' from the point of view of postmodern thought, 
there is no doubting the fact that — for many scholars — more radical postmodern 
claims have come to inform ideas and practices which merge with those that have 
developed out of the Enlightenment project. The radical claims of the postmodern 
might continue to provide the 'climate' which fuels the middle way — and on both 
sides of the Enlightenment/postmodern 'divide' — but they no longer operate 'on the 
wild side'. 

Turning to some examples of the middle way, consider first Hinnells' point (cited 
earlier in his characterization of postmodernism) concerning 'the move away from 
the exclusive dependence on the offical textual traditions to the practices associated 
with the home and daily life'. Which (thoughtful) scholar could possibly object to 
this widening of the frame of (increasingly politically significant) inquiry? Or, second, 
take Hinnells' point concerning 'each scholar's awareness of their own "situated" 

Postmodernism 271 

position'. Again, who could possibly object to scholars reflecting on — and then 
attempting to change — prejudices which they bring to their studies? Or, third, consider 
the objection that 'situated scholars', as they might be called, engage in theoretical- 
cum-methodological-cum-conceptual imperialism, arrogantly asserting that they 
know the true meaning (of, say, myth) while more or less ignoring how participants 
themselves understand matters. Again, not many today would want to deny that 
participant interpretation — itself open to diverse interpretation — is important, what- 
ever 'objective' analysis might reveal; indeed, that 'objective' analysis might well 
benefit from close attention being paid to the participant frame of reference. Or, 
fourth, there is the 'postmodernist' objection that situated scholars, in particular 
those of the 'harder' social science variety, work with crude, universalized, definitions 
which distort the very nature of that which is supposedly under scientific scrutiny. Yet 
again, who would want to deny that this is profoundly problematic, not just because 
the religious realm is misrepresented but because the social scientific approach can 
undermine itself by redefining/conceptualizing its subject matter to suit itself. 

The middle way owes a great deal to both Enlightenment and postmodern thought. 
The former is in evidence, for example, in that religion — or something akin to it — 
is taken to be active in the world 'out there', beyond the texts of the scholar. The 
latter is in evidence in that there is a profound awareness that Enlightenment meta- 
narratives and definitional formations can only too readily serve the cause of cultural, 
political, conceptual, explanatory, imperialism. A zone of inquiry has developed, 
between the 'wilder' shores of Enlightenment and postmodern thought — although 
ultimately informed by both — in which these modes of thought have come into 
creative and constitutive interplay. This is a new(ish) interplay given that post- 
modern thought - in connection with religion — is a recent development. And rather 
than worrying about whether this interplay is best seen as being informed by either 
Enlightenment or postmodern thought, it is surely best to rest content with the 
formulation 'the middle way in the study of religion': having emerged from two (main) 
sources, it now operates with its own dynamics. 

The work of Edward Said provides a 'classic' illustration of the middle way in action. 
Without question, the intellectual 'climate' of postmodern thought percolates through 
his work. His concern in Orientalism. Western Conceptions of the Orient (1995) is 
to dismantle imperializing/totalizing metanarratives of the Orient, showing in 
Foucauldian fashion how power interests, on the side of the West, have generated false 
and oppressive power relations. But at the same time, Enlightenment thought is well 
in evidence. Said describes himself as a 'humanist' (p. 9). He is able to argue his case 
that 'Orientalism' is 'a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having author- 
ity over the Orient' (p. 3) by virtue of the fact that he assumes that it is possible to 
test metanarrative against 'the case', the truly existing 'Other'. He is able to argue that 
the Cambridge History of Islam serves to 'radically misconceive and misrepresent Islam 
as a religion' (p. 302) on the grounds of evidence to do with history and power rela- 
tions. He 'deconstructs' (and the word is used) cultural imperialism, the repressive, by 
reference to the referent, the real world; the events of a world beyond text in that it 
involves the facts of the historical record — those deaths, sufferings, disempowerments 
which have actually taken place and which are therefore not to be treated as simply 
matters of language. And, it can be added, this is a crucial factor in explaining why 
so many regard his work to be so politically effective. 

272 Key issues in the study of religions 


In sum, in the fashion of liberal inquiry and with an eye on the valorization of 
freedom found in many postmodern quarters, perhaps the only conclusion to be drawn 
is that it is good to find that the study of religion today is informed by 'wilder' post- 
modern thought, (some) 'harder' Enlightenment studies, and, increasingly, the middle 
way. All of these approaches have their virtues in that they are good to think with. 
The variety generates vitality. Perhaps the only drawback to this scenario is that the 
two extremes are not especially well represented in the study of religion today. 'Hard' 
social scientists have become relatively few and far between. 'Wilder' postmodernists 
have not yet made much direct impact on the study of religion (although this is not 
the case for theology). 

This is a pity, for the emergent middle way is perhaps best kept in dynamic and 
creative tension when the poles - High Enlightenment and Wild Postmodernity - 
are forcefully argued. Indeed, I am inclined to conclude that what is most urgently 
required to vitalize the study of religion — a study which is nowhere near as exciting 
as it was when the Enlightenment project had its heyday — is an injection from the 
'wilder side'. 

A note on postmodern religion 

The reader might be wondering: but what has all this to do with what is studied! 
Surely discussion of the study of religion cannot ignore the ways in which study 
comes to bear on its subject matter? Accordingly, although this essay is primarily 
concerned with ways of studying religion, we now turn — all too briefly — to 
what different forms of study (modernist and postmodernist) have to say about the 
nature of religion in everyday practice. Specifically, do they reveal the operation of 
postmodern religion? 

Before listing the possibilities, the meaning of the term 'postmodern religion' has 
to be introduced. The best characterization that I know - summarizing as it does 
much of the literature (both modernist and postmodernist) — is provided by James 
Beckford. He writes: 

It seems to me that the following are most commonly associated with post-moder- 
nity [and therefore postmodern religion]: 

1 A refusal to regard positivistic, rationalistic, instrumental criteria as the sole 
or exclusive standard of worthwhile knowledge. 

2 A willingness to combine symbols from disparate codes or frameworks of 
meaning, even at the cost of disjunctions and eclecticism. 

3 A celebration of spontaneity, fragmentation, superficiality, irony and playfulness. 

4 A willingness to abandon the search for over-arching or triumphalist myths, 
narratives or frameworks of knowledge. 

If these characteristics are the hallmarks of the post-modern sensibility in general, 
then one might expect, on the analogy with post-modern fine arts, architecture 
and literature, that it would receive a distinctive expression in religion. My expect- 
ation would be that putatively post-modern forms of religion would embrace 

Postmodernism 273 

diversity of discourse and the abandonment of unitary meaning systems; cross- 
referencing between, and pastiches of, different religious traditions; and an accent 
on playfulness or cynicism. 

(1992: 19-20) 

With this formulation in mind, it is now possible to turn to the possibilities: that 
is to say, the relationship between different forms of study and claims concerning 
whether or not postmodern religion is operative in the everyday world. 

The first possibility is that postmodern thought of the radical variety reveals the 
existence of postmodern religion. Given what has been said earlier about the fact 
that this kind of thought finds it difficult if not impossible to engage in the study of 
what is taking place in the real, 'objective' world, this possibility is highly unlikely. 

The second is that those pursuing what we are calling the middle way are able to 
show that religions partake of the postmodern to a (much) greater extent than has 
been acknowledged by those working in terms of (radical) Enlightenment thought. 
This possibility has to be taken very seriously indeed. Those, like Said, who aim to 
deconstruct what they take to be the essentialized, totalizing characterizations of, say, 
what has come to be called 'Islam', do so by pointing to the fact that the term 'Islam' 
actually refers to much more fluid, unstable, shifting, contestable discourses; to what 
Beckford describes as 'diversity of discourse and the abandonment of unitary meaning 
systems' (ibid.). 

As for the third possibility, could it be the case that 'hard' social scientists are 
able to find postmodern religion? I wonder. Their commitment to that which is 
modern, their attention to the determinate or precise 'Religion' as traditionally 
defined, means that they might well not be attuned to recognizing postmodern 
religion - even if it exists. 

That leaves the possibility as explored by 'softer' social scientists like Beckford. 
Unlike the 'hard' social scientist, Beckford can indeed identify postmodern religion. 
Unlike practitioners of the middle way, however, he does not do this by decon- 
structing metanarratives. He finds postmodern religion simply by observing what is 
'the case'. Quite probably complementing the deconstructive approach, this joins it 
in being another possibility which has to be taken very seriously. 

To end on a rather different note, there is also the consideration that postmodern 
thought is actively contributing to the construction of postmodern religion. This is 
undoubtedly happening. It has to do with the theological-cum-postmodern assault 
on those metanarratives (specifically that of the Enlightenment) which have (suppos- 
edly) undermined religion. It has to do with the development of religion beyond the 
criticisms, restaints and excesses of modernity and its thinking. But since this has to 
do with 'doing religion' — theology rather than 'the study of religion' — the topic is 
best explored on another occasion. 


Beckford, James A. 1992 Religion, Modernity and Post-modernity. In B. R. Wilson (ed.) 
Religion: Contemporary Issues. London: Bellew (pp. 11-23). A concise account of religion 
in connection with modernity and postmodernity. 

274 Key issues in the study of religions 

Benhabib, Seyla 1992 Situating the Self. Gender, Community and Postmodernism in Contemporary 

Ethics. Cambridge: Polity Press. An exploration of what modern and postmodern thought 

have to offer. 
Currie, Kate 1996 Beyond Orientalism. An Exploration of Some Recent Themes in Indian History 

and Society. Calcutta: K P Bagchi & Company. A good summary of the Orientalism debate. 
Derrida, Jacques 1976 (orig. 1967) Of Grammatology . Baltimore and London: The John 

Hopkins University Press. One of the great 'classics' of radical postmodern thought. 
Hinnells, John R. (2000) Postmodernism and the Study of Zorastrianism in Zoroastrian and 

Parsi Studies: Selected Works of John R. Hinnells. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, pp. 7-25. 

A succient account of how studies of a religious tradition can be looked at in terms of a 

modern-postmodern spectrum. 
Kant, Immanuel, 1970 An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment? In Hans Reiss 

(ed.) Kant's Political Writings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, (pp. 54-60) The 

statement of the Enlightenment. 
Levi-Strauss, Claude 1966 (orig. 1992) The Savage Mind. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson. 

The book which best exemplifies the structuralism of 'high' Enlightenment thought. 
Lyotard, Jean-Francois 1984 The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Minneapolis: 

University of Minnesota Press. A classic, if disappointing statement of the postmodern 

condition seen as involving the rejection of metanarratives. 
Masuzawa, Tomoko 1993 In Search of Dreamtime . The Questfor the Origin of Religion. Chicago and 

London: The University of Chicago Press. A thoughtful work, of a postmodernist variety, 

deconstructing theories of the High Enlightenment. 
Needham, Rodney 1972 Belief, Language, and Experience. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. An under- 
appreciated, but brilliantly performed, argument to deconstruct 'belief as a univerally 

applicable category. 
Paine, Thomas 1998 Rights of Man. Common Sense. And other Political Writings. Oxford and New 

York: Oxford University Press. Arguably the classic work concerning Enlightenment politics. 
Rosenau, Pauline 1992 Post-Modernism and the Social Sciences. Insights, Inroads, and Intrusions. 

Princeton: Princeton University Press. A presentation, not evaluation, of the implications 

for the social sciences of the chief tenets of postmodernism. 
Said, Edward, E. 1995 (orig. 1978) Orientalism. Western Concepts of the Orient. London: 

Penguin. Certainly the classic text regarding the deconstruction of Enlightenment thought 

and the appropriation of the Orient. 
Squires, Judith 1993 Introduction. In Judith Squires (ed.) Principled Positions. Postmodernism 

and the Rediscovery of Value. London: Lawrence & Wishart (pp. 1-13). A lucid account of 

what can be salvaged from both Enlightenment and postmodern thought. 
Taylor, Mark C. 1998 Introduction. Critical Terms for Religious Studies. Chicago: The University 

of Chicago Press (pp. 1-19). By far and away the most impressive attempt, to date, to decon- 
struct the familiar - as Enlightenment inspired - terms central to religious studies. 
Vattimo, Gianni 1992 The Transparent Society. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. 

A powerful rendering of the sociocultural in terms of postmodern thought on the 'wild side'. 
Winch, Peter 1994 (orig. 1958) The Idea of a Social Science and Its Relation to Philosophy. 

London: Routledge. One of the most influential works to argue that 'hard' social science 

must be replaced by investigations which fully take on board the fact that meanings - with 

their complexities - are critically constitutive of human affairs. 

Chapter 15 

Orientalism and the 
study of religions 

Richard King 


How often have you watched a news report on television, read a newspaper article 
or been exposed to an advertisement conveying some image of 'Eastern' culture? 
Whether it is a scene of crowds of angry Muslims burning an American flag, a shaven- 
headed Buddhist monk clothed in a saffron robe and quietly meditating, militant 
Hindus attacking a Muslim mosque or a billboard promoting a perfume that evokes 
the 'mystic sensuality' of India, what all of these images have in common is their 
involvement in a long history of Western representations and stereotypes of Asia as 
an 'other' — that is as essentially different from the West. One consequence of such 
images, whether positive or negative in their connotations, is that 'we' (the West) 
become clearly separated from 'them' (the East). The acceptance of a basic opposi- 
tion between Eastern and Western cultures characterizes what has been called 

Indeed images of the East have often functioned as a means of defining the cultural 
identity of the West, however differently that has been conceived throughout history. 
The Christian identity of medieval Europe was bolstered by concerns about the incur- 
sion of Turkish Muslims. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Asia repre- 
sented both a mysterious and timeless realm of wisdom and spirituality, but also the 
site of unspeakable social depravities and primitive religious practices. In this regard 
the West was able to comfort itself that it was progressive, civilized and thoroughly 
modern in contrast to an ahistorical and unchanging Orient. Widespread beliefs 
about the indolent and despotic nature of Oriental societies also justified a Western 
sense of superiority and the belief that it was the duty of the West to civilize the 
savage and aid the Oriental in their progression away from tradition and dogmatism 
and towards modernity and civilization. In the modern era, whether it is the threat 
of the 'yellow peril' (Chinese communism) in the 1970s, or the militant Islamic 
fundamentalist of the 1980s and 1990s, the West has always maintained its own 
sense of cultural identity by contrasting itself with a radically different 'Orient'. 

The latter part of the twentieth century has seen the demise of Western political 
rule of Asia and the emergence of countries such as India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka 
as independent nation-states. The British Empire, for instance, has become the British 
Commonwealth. However, many still question whether the world has really entered 
a 'post-colonial' era, arguing that Western political, economic and cultural domi- 
nance represents continuity rather than a fundamental break with the colonial past. 

276 Key issues in the study of religions 

Are we living today in a post-colonial or a neo-colonial age ? Although the influence 
of Britain and the rest of Europe has receded to a significant degree since the end 
of the Second World War, it is clear that with the demise of Eastern European 
communism, the United States of America is the new global power in the West. 
Capitalism, consumerism and multi-national corporations continue to influence an 
increasingly global marketplace. Western dominance is apparent not only on an 
economic and political level, but on a cultural one also, having an inevitable impact 
upon traditional beliefs and practices in non- Western societies. What are we to make 
of the cultural impact of the 'new technologies'? When American television soap 
operas are beamed into middle-class Asian homes via satellite, punctuated by adver- 
tisements for Coca-Cola and McDonalds, where does one draw the line between the 
modernization of Asia and its Westernization? Is the 'global network' of cyberspace 
a realm in which Asian and Western cultures can meet as equal participants in a 
worldwide celebration of human diversity or does the rhetoric of 'globalization' mask 
the continued dominance of 'the rest' by the West? 

What is Orientalism? 

Orientalism refers to the long-standing Western fascination with the East and the 
tendency to divide the world up into East and West, with the East acting as a kind 
of mirror or foil by which Western culture defines itself. The question of the 
complicity between Western scholarly study of Asia — the discipline of Orientalism, 
and the imperialistic aspirations of Western nations became a subject of consider- 
able attention in Western academic circles after the publication of Edward Said's 
work, Orientalism (1978). In this book, Said offered a stinging indictment of Western 
conceptions of and attitudes towards the Orient. According to Said 'Orientalism' 
refers to three inter-related phenomena (1978: 2-3): 

1 the academic study of the Orient; 

2 a mind-set or 'style of thought' founded upon a rigid dichotomy of 'East' and 

3 the corporate institution authorized to dominate, control and subjugate the 
peoples and cultures of the East. 

For Said the mutual intersection of these three dimensions of Orientalism demon- 
strates the complicity between Western discourses about the Orient and Western 
colonialism. Orientalism then is primarily a 'Western style for dominating, restruc- 
turing, and having authority over the Orient' (Said 1978: 3). Although credit has 
usually been given to Said for highlighting this dimension of the Orientalist enter- 
prise his work was certainly not the first to suggest complicity between scholarly 
analysis of the East and Western imperialist aspirations. Said's work is also clearly 
indebted to earlier studies (Schwab 1950; Pannikar 1959; Abdel-Malek 1963; 
Steadman 1970). 

The study of religion, both in the concern to explore comparative and cross-cultural 
issues and themes, and in the more specific attempt to understand and examine the 
religions and cultures of Asia, has had a seminal role to play in the development of 
Western conceptions of and attitudes towards the Orient, particularly from the nine- 

Orientalism and the study of religions 277 

teenth century onwards. Western intellectual interest in the religions of the East 
developed in a context of Western political dominance and colonial expansionism. 
It is perhaps surprising then to discover that it is only in recent years that the disci- 
pline of religious studies has begun to take seriously the political implications and 
issues involved when Western scholars and institutions claim the authority to repre- 
sent and speak about the religions and cultures of others. Recent collections of 
scholarly articles such as Orientalism and the Post-colonial Predicament (1993) and 
Curators of the Buddha (1995), explore the impact of Western colonialism upon South 
Asia and the study of Buddhism respectively. Such developments have occurred in 
response to the growing post-colonial agenda to be found in other academic disci- 
plines such as literary studies, anthropology and history. Specific studies such as Philip 
Almond's The British Discovery of Buddhism (1988), Talal Asad's Genealogies of Religion 
(1993) and Richard King's Orientalism and Religion (1999) have taken up the mantle 
left by Edward Said and applied it to the disciplines of Buddhist Studies (Almond), 
anthropology (Asad) and religious studies/Indology (King). It is likely that the trend 
toward post-colonial approaches to the study of religion will continue, if only because 
the issues highlighted by such an orientation remain central to international poli- 
tics and debates about globalization, modernity and the future of cross-cultural analysis 
in a post-colonial world. 

Knowledge and power 

Edward Said (1935—2003) was a diaspora Palestinian educated according to Western 
conventions and standards. He was a professor of English and Comparative Literature 
at the University of Columbia from 1963 until his death in 2003. This background 
in Western literary studies is reflected in Said's work, which displays the influence 
of a number of Western theorists and writers, most notably the French poststruc- 
turalist Michel Foucault (1926-84). The importance of Foucault in this context 
resides in his comprehensive analysis of the relationship between power and know- 
ledge. In a number of critical studies on the history of madness, the birth of the 
clinic and the history of sexuality in the west, Foucault argued that all claims to 
knowledge involve an attempt to establish a particular set of power relations. Foucault 
described his method as a 'genealogy of knowledge' (supplementing what he describes 
in his earlier works as an 'archaeology of knowledge'). This involves an examination 
of the socio-historical roots of an ideology or institution in order to highlight the 
ways in which certain groups within society have constructed discourses which have 
promoted their own authority (Carrette 1999). 

The impact of Foucault's work has grown as postmodernist and poststructuralist 
approaches have gained support in contemporary academic circles. Critics of 
Foucault's approach have questioned his apparently relativistic stance towards all 
knowledge and truth claims. Foucault seems to be arguing not just that knowledge 
is always associated with power, but that knowledge is power, i.e. that what we call 
knowledge is merely a manifestation or reflection of the will-to-power within any 
given society. It is this aspect of his approach, clearly influenced by the German 
philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), which has drawn the fiercest criticism 
of his work, with the suggestion that Foucault's approach makes it impossible to 
establish any definitive truth about the nature of reality. From Foucault's perspective 

278 Key issues in the study of religions 

the concern is to overturn the modern ideal of an objective and value-free know- 
ledge of universally applicable truths. But as other critics have argued there are many 
notions of truth at work in Foucault's writings (Prado 1995: 119). Nevertheless, in 
place of the notion of absolute and universal 'truths', Foucault advocates an approach 
that focuses upon a diversity of localized 'truths' and a concern to explore their 
complicity with power structures within that specific locality. Thus, for Foucault: 

Truth is a thing of this world: it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of 
constraint. And it induces regular effects of power. Each society has its own 
regime of truth, its 'general politics' of truth: that is, the types of discourse which 
it accepts and makes function as true. 

(Foucault 1977, translation in Gordon 1980: 131) 

Said found Foucault's analysis and his equation of power and knowledge useful 
conceptual tools for articulating his own conception of Orientalism as the West's 
exercising of its will-to-power over the East. He remained unwilling, however, to 
adopt Foucault's general stance since it seemed to allow no room for ethical judge- 
ments based upon universal truths and humanistic principles. Moreover, if there is 
no truth 'out there' one can offer no basis for a critique of Western representations 
of the Orient on the basis of their unrepresentative nature. Thus, Said argued that: 

It would be wrong to conclude that the Orient was essentially an idea, or a 
creation with no corresponding reality . . . But the phenomenon of Orientalism 
as I study it here deals principally, not with a correspondence between 
Orientalism and Orient, but with the internal consistency of Orientalism and 
its ideas about the Orient (the East as career) despite or beyond any correspon- 
dence, or lack thereof, with a 'real' Orient. 

(Said 1978: 5) 

The truth is out there or is it? 

The ambiguities of Said's analysis and methodology have been a central theme of 
many of the responses to his work. Some critics have argued that Orientalism reflects 
theoretical inconsistencies in Said's account (al- c Azm 1981; Lewis 1982; Clifford 
1988; Ahmed 1992), with the author arguing on the one hand that 'the Orient' is 
constructed in Western imaginations and yet attacking Western characterizations of 
the East as misrepresentations of a real Orient 'out there'. Other reviewers have cele- 
brated such ambiguities as deliberately disruptive and anti-theoretical (Behdad 1994; 
Prakash 1995), a position that Said himself came to endorse when reflecting, some 
years later, upon his own work (Said 1995: 340). Indeed, Said's reluctance to offer 
an alternative representation of 'the Orient' is grounded in his firmly held belief that 
the division between 'East' and 'West' is an act of the imagination, and a pernicious 
one at that. This, however, does not mean that the social and human realities that 
these images of 'the Orient' are meant to refer to are also imaginary. Far from it, it 
is precisely because representations of the Orient are essentially imaginary that they 
can be said to be unrepresentative of the diversity of Asian peoples and cultures 
(King 1999: 209). Said's challenge to his successors, therefore, is to find alternative 

Orientalism and the study of religions 279 

and ever more nuanced ways of representing cultural diversity to replace those 
founded upon a simplistic and oppositional logic of 'Occident vs. Orient' — of 'us' 
and 'them': 

Can one divide human reality, as indeed human reality seems to be genuinely 
divided, into clearly different cultures, histories, traditions, societies, even races, 
and survive the consequences humanly? By surviving the consequences humanly, 
I means to ask whether there is any way of avoiding the hostility expressed by 
the division, say of men into 'us' (Westerners) and 'they' (Orientals). 

(Said 1978: 45) 

Other scholars, however, have been more willing to embrace a postmodernist or 
poststructuralist view of knowledge, with its rejection of any unproblematic appeal 
to a reality 'out there' beyond the play of representations. Anthropologist Ronald 
Inden, for instance, agrees with Foucault in rejecting a representational view of 
knowledge. There is no privileged or unmediated access to reality. 

[K]nowledge of the knower is not a disinterested mental representation of an 
external, natural reality. It is a construct that is always situated in a world appre- 
hended through specific knowledges and motivated by practices in it. What is 
more, the process of knowing actively participates in producing and transforming 
the world that it constructs intellectually. 

(Inden 1990: 33) 

Inden maintains that the study of South Asia has been based upon a misleading 
search for essences such as 'the Hindu mind,' 'the Indian village,' 'caste' and 'divine 
kingship' — as if entire cultures could be represented by such basic categories. These 
approaches also imply that the Western scholar has some special ability to discern 
the central features of Asian cultures in a way that is unavailable to Asians them- 
selves. Inden advocates the abandonment of approaches that search for cultural 
essences and 'fundamental natures' because they ignore historical change and cultural 
diversity and therefore provide stereotypes of Asian culture. In their place Inden 
proposes an emphasis upon the historical agency of indigenous Asians. This approach, 
he suggests, would avoid the tendency to conceive of the Orient as an unchanging 
and timeless realm — as if Asian cultures and peoples were subject to rather than 
agents of historical change. The critical response to Inden's work has been varied. 
Some scholars have questioned his universal indictment of Western scholarship on 
the East as an example of the very essentialism that he attacks: 'If, as Inden says, 
India and the Indians were "essentialized" by the Indologists, it is certainly no less 
true and obvious that Indology and Indologists are being essentialized by his own 
sweeping statements' (Halbfass 1997: 19). 

Other critics such as the Marxist literary theorist Aijaz Ahmad (1991) worry that 
Inden's appeal to indigenous agency lends itself too easily to appropriation by right 
wing Hindu groups in contemporary India. Indeed, the work of scholars such as 
Robert Sharf (1994; 1995) and King (1999) demonstrate that indigenous spokesmen 
for Asian religious traditions, such as D. T. Suzuki (Zen Buddhism) and Swami 
Vivekananda (Hinduism) were implicated in their own forms of 'internal colonialism' 

280 Key issues in the study of religions 

in the manner in which they represented their respective religious traditions at home 
and abroad. Moreover, many scholars have highlighted Western colonial influences 
upon contemporary forms of Hindu nationalism and communalism (Pandey 1990; 
Thapar 1992; Chatterjee 1986; van der Veer 1994). 

Questions have also been raised about the poststructuralist theory of knowledge 
expounded by Inden. Is it possible, following Inden, to make any sort of appeal to 
a 'real India' underlying the various representations of it? In a similar fashion David 
Ludden criticizes Edward Said for believing that 'there is to be found in the East a 
real truth' (1993: 271). What we are dealing with are more or less powerful images 
of the Orient and not a 'real Orient' out there. Indologists such as Wilhelm Halbfass 
(1997: 16-17) have been quick to reject this approach on the grounds that it is self- 
refuting. Such a claim, he argues, prevents any critique of Orientalism based upon 
the misleading and unrepresentative nature of Orientalist accounts. How can one offer 
a critique of representations if there is no way of appealing to a real Orient or India 
'out there'? 

Orientalism in South Asia: the Asiatic Society of Bengal 

Such has been the influence of Said's work in the decades succeeding the publica- 
tion of his study that 'Orientalism' has now become a pejorative term, suggesting 
academic complicity with Western colonialism, rather than a neutral designation for 
the Western study of the East. For critics such as Bernard Lewis and David Kopf, 
Said's work has meant that the term 'Orientalist' is now 'polluted beyond salvation' 
(Lewis 1982: 50), representing 'a sewer category for all the intellectual rubbish 
Westerners have exercised in the global marketplace of ideas' (Kopf 1980: 498). 
Indeed before the publication of Said's study, the term 'Orientalism' had a specific 
meaning in a South Asian context, referring to the academic discipline which came 
into being as a result of the work of Sir William Jones, judge of the East India 
Company. Orientalism began with the formal establishment of the Asiatic Society 
of Bengal in Calcutta in 1784- The administrative and academic work of the Asiatic 
Society has been credited as the prime instigator for the Bengali Renaissance, a resur- 
gence of intellectual interest in Hindu culture and reform among the Hindu 
intelligentsia of Bengal in the nineteenth century. 

William Jones, the first President of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, is best known 
for his early work on Sanskrit — the ancient sacred language of the Hindus. Jones 
was a founding father of comparative linguistics and established links between 
Sanskrit and the European family of languages. In this sense he was an important 
catalyst for the explosion of interest in the cultural splendor of India's past, and also 
in the Romanticist tendency to conceive of India as the cradle of European civi- 
lization. Indeed under the influence of Romanticism India increasingly functioned as 
the canvas upon which a number of idealized representations and images were painted 
in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. India represented 'the childhood of 
humanity', an image which had positive as well as negative connotations. For the 
German writer Schlegel, India was 'the real source of all tongues, of all thoughts and 
utterances of the human mind. Everything — yes, everything without exception has 
its origin in India' (cited in Iyer 1965: 194). For his contemporary the German 
philosopher G. W. F. Hegel, however, the infantile nature of Indian culture meant 

Orientalism and the study of religions 281 

that it had nothing to teach Europeans about modernity. India remained lost in an 
ancient fog of unprogressive mythologies and superstitions. 

The Anglicists and the Orientalists 

Assessment of the role, impact and motivations of Western Orientalists in India has 
become a subject of considerable debate in South Asian studies in response to Said's 
indictment of the Orientalist project. Historian David Kopf suggests that Said has 
missed his target with reference to the South Asian context. The Asiatic Society of 
Bengal, far from being a handmaiden to European colonialism, 'helped Indians to find 
an indigenous identity in the modern world' (Kopf 1980: 498). Early Orientalist schol- 
arship on India, Kopf argues, was overwhelmingly attracted to and fascinated by its 
object, and defended the study of the indigenous traditions and languages of Asia when 
criticized by anti-Orientalist groups such as the Anglicists. This latter group, best 
exemplified by Lord Thomas Babington Macauley (1800-59), argued that the most 
expedient means of educating Indians was to introduce them to Western ideas and lit- 
erature and to teach these through the medium of the English language. Babington 
believed that 'a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native lit- 
erature of India and Arabia', a view that he claimed would not be refuted by the 
Orientalists themselves. In his famous 'Minute on Indian Education' (1835) Macauley 
declared his vision for the transformation of India under British imperial rule: 

We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between 
us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and 
colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect. 

(Harlow and Carter 1999: 59) 

Affirmative Orientalism 

Kopf contrasts the attitude of Anglicists such as Macauley with the more enthusi- 
astic and positive attitude towards India to be found in the writings of Orientalists 
such as Sir William Jones, Max Miiller and Henry Thomas Colebrooke. The ensuing 
debate between these two positions, he argues, demonstrates the diversity of moti- 
vations and attitudes towards India at this time. Said's sweeping generalizations about 
the complicity of Orientalist scholarship with a Western colonial agenda wildly over- 
step the mark. Many Western Orientalists were often deeply sympathetic towards 
the object of their study (Clifford 1988; Fox 1992). Richard G. Fox argues, for 
instance, that Said's own analysis ignores the fact that 'resistance to Orientalist domi- 
nation proceeds from within it.' (Fox 1992: 153). A similar point is made by Bernard 
Lewis when he argues that 'The most rigorous and penetrating critique of Orientalist 
scholarship has always been and will remain that of the Orientalists themselves' 
(Lewis 1982: 56). However, as Ulrike Freitag notes, this response by Lewis reiterates 
'the exclusivist Orientalist stance'. This only serves to reconfirm 'the idea that only 
outsiders — that is, Orientalists — could really represent 'the Orient' and [are] the 
only ones competent to review their own scholarship' (Freitag 1997: 630). 

Despite its obvious fascination and affirmation of Oriental culture, Ronald Inden 
(1990) describes examples of 'affirmative Orientalism' as 'the Loyal Opposition' 

282 Key issues in the study of religions 

precisely because they do not question the basic opposition between Eastern and 
Western cultures that underlies the Orientalist enterprise. Many of the stereotypical 
presuppositions of the Orientalist project remain intact, even if treated sympatheti- 
cally. What this demonstrates is that it is misleading to see the critique of Orientalism 
initiated by scholars such as Said and Inden as a simple rejection of the negativity 
of Western attitudes towards the East. The love affair that Western Romanticism 
has had with the Orient (and which persists to this day in New Age conceptions of 
'eastern mysticism and philosophy') is equally problematic because it continues to 
represent the diversity of Oriental cultures in terms of homogenized stereotypes. 

Furthermore, in India the nationalist struggle for home rule (swaraj) and inde- 
pendence from British rule often built upon the legacy of colonial stereotypes rather 
than uprooting them. This has led some (mainly diaspora) Indian historians to advo- 
cate the writing of a 'history from below' that focuses upon the meanings and actions 
of 'subaltern' (non-elite) groups within Indian society. The subalternist movement 
has similarities with Marxist approaches but rejects the universalism of the Marxist 
theory of 'class consciousness'. Instead the subalternist historians examine the local- 
ized context and aims of oppressed groups rather than reduce their history to the 
grand narrative of Marxism. According to subalternists such as Ranajit Guha (1988) 
and Partha Chatterjee (1986), Indian nationalist (and Marxist) accounts, like those 
written by the European colonialist, represent an elitist approach to history because 
they ignore or suppress the specific agency of non-elite groups within Indian society. 
The subalternist approach therefore offers a potential 'third way' beyond the options 
of Orientalism and Occidentalism ('Orientalism-in reverse'). This is achieved by 
rejecting the elitism of both Western colonial histories and indigenous nationalist 
histories. The latter, although usually anti-colonial in nature, exercises its own form 
of domestic or internal colonialism by replacing colonial rulership with a new elite 
— that of indigenous elite groups. 

Hybridity and the diversity of Orientalist discourses 

Recent scholarship has also emphasized the diversity of Orientalist accounts. Lisa 
Lowe (1991) rejects Said's portrayal of Orientalism as a monolithic project. She 
argues that there are a number of factors impinging upon Western representations 
of the East, including race, nation, gender and sexuality. Similarly, Homi Bhabha 
(1996: 42) questions Said's one-sided emphasis upon the power of the colonizer. This, 
he argues, gives too much power to the Western Orientalist and ignores the role 
played by the colonized subject in the production and interpretation of Orientalist 
discourses (see also Hallisey 1995: 32—3). For Bhabha the encounter between the 
Western colonizer and the colonized Asian subject is complex, producing a hybrid 
representation that is always beyond the control of both the colonialist and the 
native. Influenced by the French poststructuralist Jacques Derrida, Bhabha's point is 
that the authors of texts cannot hope to control the meaning attributed to their 
writings once they enter the public domain. Once an author provides an account of 
the Orient it can be interpreted in a variety of ways and pressed into the service of 
a number of different agendas. Bhabha makes much of the example of the English 
educated Indian. For Angliclists such as Lord Macauley (see p. 281) this figure repre- 
sented the ideal for the future of India — civilized according to British cultural 

Orientalism and the study of religions 283 

standards. However, in his mimicry of the English colonizer the Anglo-Indian repre- 
sents a hybrid form of 'Englishness' that confronts the colonizer in unexpected ways. 
Frankenstein has created a monster that he can no longer control! 

A good example to illustrate Bhabha's point is the 'discovery' of the Ezourvedam. 
This text, circulated in the form of a French 'translation', was said to be an ancient 
Hindu scripture and caught the attention of a number of eighteenth-century European 
intellectuals. The Ezourvedam proclaims the superiority of monotheism and rejects 
the polytheism and ritualism of the uneducated Hindu masses. Voltaire vigorously 
promoted the text as a testament to the superiority of ancient Hindu culture in 
comparison to the decadence of Christianity. However, the Ezourvedam was a 'fake', 
produced by French Jesuits in Pondicherry with the probable aim of discrediting 
Hindu beliefs and practices and convincing Hindus of the superiority of the Christian 
message. Thus, a text that was initially produced by missionary Christians to spread 
the 'good news' of the Gospel, was adopted by French intellectuals such as Voltaire 
and used to demonstrate the inferiority and decadence of Christianity. How ironic! 
Similarly, Western notions of India as 'backward' and undeveloped in comparison 
to the material and technological might of the modern West were adopted and 
transformed by Hindu intellectuals such as Swami Vivekananda in the anti-colonial 
struggle for Indian independence. The West may be materially prosperous, Vive- 
kananda argued, but this only serves to highlight that it lacks the spirituality of India. 
In one simple move Vivekananda took a standard Western stereotype about India 
and used it to counteract Western claims to superiority. What examples like the 
Ezourvedam and Vivekananda illustrate rather well is the multiple meanings and 
directions that can be attributed to Orientalist discourses. 

Problems with the notion of 'religion' 

The colonial domination of the West over 'the rest' in recent centuries has caused 
many Western categories and ideas to appear more universal than they might other- 
wise have seemed. An important feature of recent scholarship, therefore, has been 
to cast doubt upon the universal application of Western ideas and theories. Even 
the appropriateness of the notion of 'religion' in a non-Western context has been 
questioned on the grounds that it is the product of the cultural and political history 
of the West. For Talal Asad (1993), the modern Western tendency to conceive of 
religion in terms of belief - that is as something located in the private state of mind 
of a believer, leads Westerners to think of religion as something that is essentially 
private and separate from the public realm of politics. When Islamic or Hindu leaders 
in Asia express political views this is often seen in the West as a dangerous mixture 
of two separate realms of human life. Next time you watch a television news report 
about politics in the Middle East or India notice the style, presentation and reporting 
of events. How does the media portray foreign religious leaders in positions of polit- 
ical authority? Often news reports contain implicit assumptions about the 'normality' 
of the separation of religion from politics. However, as ex-BBC journalist Mark Tully 
suggests in his discussion of religion and politics in modern India: 

If we are really serious about coping with India's poverty we too have to show 
far greater respect for India's past and perhaps even learn from it ourselves . . . 

284 Key issues in the study of religions 

Many will say I am trying to drag India backwards — to deny it the fruits of 
modern science and technology and to rob it of the freedom of democracy. Such 
critics are, I believe, in effect accepting the claim that there is now only one 
way: that Western liberal democracy has really triumphed. 

(Tully 1991: 12) 

We should bear in mind then that the separation of religion from politics is a 
feature of modern Western societies, reflecting eighteenth-century northern European 
disputes and the eventual separation of Church and State in modern Western nations. 
It is problematic therefore to impose this model of religion onto Asian cultures. 
Indeed for Asad all attempts to find a universal definition or 'essence' of religion are 
to be avoided because they imply that religion is somehow able to operate in isola- 
tion from other spheres of human cultural activity such as politics, law and science 
(1993: 28). Moreover, the sheer diversity of human cultures mean that the search 
for universal definitions of terms like 'religion' is fruitless. In its place, Asad advo- 
cates an approach to the study of cultures that focus upon embodied practices and 
the specific power-relations in which they operate. 

King (1999) has also questioned the usefulness of the category of religion in the 
study of non-Western cultures. Modern notions of religion reflect Christian theo- 
logical assumptions, in particular the preoccupation with orthodoxy and truth (rather 
than practice and forms of life) and with a canon of authorized scriptures as the 
location of the true essence of religion (King 1999: Chapters 2 and 3). As a conse- 
quence of colonial influence, world religions such as 'Hinduism' and 'Buddhism' have 
come to the fore in the colonial and modern periods, reflecting Western (Protestant 
and secular) assumptions about the nature of religion (see also Almond 1988; 
Fitzgerald 1990). It is not that these religions were simply 'imagined' by Westerners 
without the input of indigenous elite groups, but rather that their representation and 
subsequent developments within South Asian culture continue to reflect Western 
Orientalist concerns and assumptions. King argues that academic disciplines such as 
religious studies and Indology (the study of India) should work to extricate them- 
selves from the Christian categories and secular assumptions, which continue to 
influence representations of the Orient, particularly the emphasis that is placed upon 
the so-called 'world religions'. 

Orientalism and the study of Islam 

Given that Said's work in this area focused almost exclusively upon the Middle 
Eastern and Islamic dimensions of Western Orientalist writings it is not surprising 
to find that his work has had a great deal of influence upon modern debates about 
the role and impact of Western Orientalism upon modern representations of Islam 
and Muslims. The debate has generally focused upon the legacy of Western colo- 
nialism in the Middle East and the continued existence of a number of negative 
stereotypes of Islam in the West. What is the relationship between modernity and 
Western culture? In Western culture modernity and traditionalism are usually seen 
as opposed to one another. Can one be modern and still align oneself with Islamic 
traditions? How is Islam to respond to the economic and political dominance of the 
West and the legacy of Western colonial rule in the Middle East? 

Orientalism and the study of religions 285 

Broadly speaking, there have been two main responses to these issues and the chal- 
lenge laid down by the work of Edward Said. Some Arabic intellectuals and scholars 
of Islam have argued that Western scholarship should be abandoned in favor of an 
Islamicization of knowledge. Why, such proponents argue, should Muslims feel obliged 
to conform to the intellectual conventions and secular presuppositions of Western 
scholarship? This strand of Islamic scholarship has increasingly described itself as 
'Islamism' as an indigenous alternative to the negative connotations of the Western 
term 'fundamentalism'. The Islamists tend to reject Western scholarship as a cultural 
attack upon Islam. In its place they advocate continuity with older traditions of 
Islamic scholarship, the use of Arabic as the primary linguistic mode of expression 
and an ongoing exploration of the truth expressed in the holy words of the Qur'an. 
Critics of this approach argue that Islamism represents the development of 
Occidentalism — a reversal of the Orientalist approach and a denigration of the West 
as inferior. Edward Said made it clear, however, that this was not the intention of 
his own analysis, concerned as he was to overturn and reject the dichotomy between 
Occident and Orient rather than reverse it. Nevertheless, for writers such as Akbar 
Ahmed this has been the result of Said's analysis: 

One inevitable consequence is the rejection of Western scholarship by Muslims. 
Muslim scholars in the West, whether Arab or Pakistani, are deeply suspicious 
of Western Orientalism. They are thus pushed into the hole, Said has unwit- 
tingly dug for them. For Muslims in Africa and Asia, imperfectly grasped bits of 
Marxist dogma, nationalism, and religious chauvinism create incorrect images of 
the West . . . Said has left us with what he sets out to denounce: stereotypes 
and large blocks - Orientalist, Oriental, Orient. 

(Ahmed and Donnan 1994: 5) 

Islamism represents a contemporary response to what has been called 'westoxifi- 
cation' (the pollution of Islamic culture by Western influences) and a reassertion of 
Islamic values and beliefs in a context of Western economic, political and cultural 
dominance. Scholars such as Mahmud Hamdi Zaqziiq (1983) for instance, have called 
for a scientific response to Western Orientalism founded upon the truth of Islam. 
Others, such as Hasan Hanafi (1991), call for the creation of Occidentalism, that is 
the academic study of the West, as a post-colonial response to the cultural and 
intellectual dominance of Western scholarship. 

In contrast to the Islamists, there are also a number of Arabic intellectuals engag- 
ing with the concerns and issues of Western scholarship. In most cases such scholars 
are migrants, often educated by and now working in Western universities. The main 
concern for such writers remains the mutual proliferation of stereotypes about Arabs 
and Westerners and the question of the impact of globalization, cultural interaction 
and politics upon representations of Islam. Clearly these two strands of contemporary 
Arabic scholarship do not sit easily with each other. The Islamists direct much of their 
criticism towards those Arab intellectuals who have adopted or utilized Western 
methodologies in their analysis. This is seen as a rejection of Islam and complicity 
with the secularism of the Western colonial aggressor. Similarly, Western influenced 
Arabic scholars tend to reject Islamist approaches as 'Orientalism in reverse', ques- 
tioning the privileged insulation of Arabic culture from wider international debates 
concerning modernism, postmodernism and globalization. 

286 Key issues in the study of religions 

Orientalism, gender and religion 

In the concern to highlight politics and the marginalization of the Other, the post- 
colonial agenda in scholarship has much in common with the development of feminist 
approaches to the study of religion (King 1999: 111-16). It is not surprising then to 
find that recent works have shown an increasing awareness of gender as a factor rele- 
vant to the Orientalist debate (Miller 1990). Lata Mani (1987) argues that 
nineteenth-century debates about the legality of sari (the ritual burning of a Hindu 
widow on her deceased husband's funeral pyre) - a practice abolished by the British 
in 1829, did not allow the women concerned to emerge as either 'subjects' or 'objects'. 
Instead the Hindu widow became the 'site of contestation' in a debate which centered 
instead upon the question of whether or not the burning of widows was sanctioned 
by ancient Hindu sacred texts. All participants in this debate, whether abolitionists 
or preservationists, accepted without question the authority of Hindu brahmanical 
scriptures as the definitive source for 'the Hindu position'. The location of the 
'essence' of Hinduism in ancient texts clearly reflects the Protestant presuppositions 
of the early Orientalists and gained further support from their reliance upon the 
scholarly community of brahmanical pandits as the authorized spokesmen for 
Hinduism (King 1999: Chapters 5 and 6). 

Similarly, recent work has also paid attention to the images of the 'sexualized Orient' 
found in Western fantasies about the Oriental 'harem' and 'the veil' (Lewis 1996; 
Mabro 1996; Yegenoglu 1998). Notions of the seductive and sensual nature of the 
Orient and of the Oriental woman in particular also continue to this day in media 
advertising and popular culture. Whether this involves popularized accounts of the 
'secrets of the Kama Sutra' (which is thereby transformed from an ancient Hindu text 
on the etiquette of courtship and